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The perils of melting permafrost


The next twenty years in the Arctic will be defined by a “tipping point”
The next twenty years in the Arctic will be defined by a “tipping point”

Sana Ahmed, staff writer

June 13, 2011 — The next two decades will play a pivotal role in the shaping -- or, what some might deem, de-shaping of the Arctic ice.

There will be no way to put the carbon back into the permafrost
There will be no way to put the carbon back into the permafrost

Climate change affects the Arctic at a much faster pace than the rest of the planet. Climatologists at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre present a compelling case about one of this century's most pressing world issues -- climate change and its effects on the environment. They argue that within the next twenty years, the Arctic ice will continue to melt at a highly accelerated pace because of climactic changes. It is the Arctic’s permafrost that will mostly be affected.

Experts at World Wildlife Fund Canada also agree that the next two decades will be defined by what’s called a “tipping point.” Irreversible damages are already taking place in the Arctic's permafrost. Undisturbed for centuries, billions of leaves and roots lie underneath the frozen Arctic. As global temperatures rise, the likelihood of these plants thawing also rises. Research indicates that this trend will potentially be catastrophic.

“Climate change is a huge challenge to the entire infrastructure that is currently built on the permafrost. The social challenge lies in how to manage that,” explains Martin von Mirbach, Director of the Canadian Arctic Program at World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Permafrost is a body of stored carbon and methane that has been locked up for thousands of years. As it gets released into the atmosphere, a ‘feedback’ loop begins to take shape. As rising temperatures thaw the permafrost, it in turn releases carbon and methane into the atmosphere. This exacerbates climate change. So, there’s a dangerous vicious cycle or feedback loop created, says Mirbach.

Animal life is likely going to be affected due to permafrost melt
Animal life is likely going to be affected due to permafrost melt

Frozen plant matter that was incorporated into the permafrost 30,000 years ago, is predicted to reach a tipping point between 2020 and 2030. By 2200, about two-thirds of the Earth's permafrost will melt and subsequently release an estimated 190 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the air.

In the next twenty years, once the carbon thaws out and decays, the damage will be irreversible, because there will be no way to put the carbon back into the permafrost.

Already the Arctic sees longer summers due to global warming which results in a longer plant growing season. It is estimated that around the year 2025, the thawing permafrost will release much more carbon than what is being consumed by the growing tundra above it.

There are some essential lessons to be learned from this reality. If human beings don't control this carbon release in a proper and timely manner, we will end up with warmer climates which will be detrimental to our future and our planet's existence.

Mirbach warns that the most significant change will be the net emissions of carbon and methane released into the atmosphere. Methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas because of its potency.

“We’re already seeing significant melting of the permafrost,” emphasizes Mirbach. “There is no way to stop permafrost melting except by addressing climate change through worldwide reductions of greenhouse gases. For us to really address the problem of melting permafrost and feedback loop, we need to take action globally to reduce emissions.”

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