If you’re not thinking about the climate impacts of thawing permafrost, (here’s why) you should be
Earth’s permafrost is thawing, and indigenous communities in the Arctic and scientists around the world say it’s high time this alarming loss of ground ice receives the global attention – and dedicated research – it deserves. As this phenomenon reshapes landscapes, displaces whole villages, and disrupts fragile animal habitats; it also threatens to release dangerous microorganisms and potential carbon emissions that have been locked in ice for thousands of years.
Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice Simon Kofe made headlines during COP26 this past November by addressing the UN climate conference while standing knee-deep in seawater.
“We are sinking,” he said, highlighting the existential danger that climate change fuelled sea-level rise represents to the world’s low-lying island nations.
The video from Tuvalu went viral. The image was impactful, like those coming from fellow Pacific Islands Kiribati and Fiji in recent years, showing entire towns being moved further inland as villages slowly succumb to the sea around them.
A similarly troubling, but much less eye-catching tragedy is occurring on the opposite side of the globe: The Arctic, where rising temperatures are shrinking ancient glaciers, thinning sea ice, and warming and thawing the planet’s permafrost.
Permafrost is ground below the Earth’s surface that has been continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years and in most cases, for hundreds or thousands of years. It extends over a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, including many regions that are not covered in snow.
This frozen ground is present beneath large parts of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, where people, mostly indigenous communities, have lived, worked, and hunted for hundreds of years.
Displaced by climate change
“In my future and our youth’s future, I picture our community being completely relocated,” Eriel Lugt, a 19-year-old Inuit indigenous activist from Canada's Arctic region, tells UN News.
Although heartbreaking images of malnourished polar bears struggling to cope with changes of the Arctic landscape might be now embedded in our brains, the thought of entire human settlements having to be relocated or of indigenous communities having to rethink their traditional way of life is not something we hear much about.
“When I first learned about climate, I was in grade 9 and I hadn’t realized that climate change was happening so rapidly in my own community, right in front of my eyes”.
Indeed, for years her hometown, Tuktoyaktuk, has been suffering the consequences of our melting cryosphere.
“Here in Tuk our whole land is on permafrost,” she explains, “The thawing is completely changing our land structure, and with that our wildlife is also being affected.”
The melting of this frozen ground below the surface that covers about 9 million square miles of the north of our planet is barely visible to us, but its effects are not. Roads, houses, pipelines, even military facilities, and other infrastructure are collapsing or starting to become unstable.
Many northern villages such as Tuktoyaktuk are built on permafrost, which when frozen is harder than concrete. But as the planet rapidly warms – the Arctic at least twice as fast as other regions – the thawing ground erodes and can trigger landslides.
Moreover, the reduction and change of sea ice leave coastal villages more vulnerable to storm surges.
“Our community is known for having fierce winds, and every summer there would be days when the wind just makes the sea level rise, so that’s another problem we face… Each winter I notice still that the coast loses about an inch of land,” Eriel highlights.
Some of her neighbors who lived right in the tundra above the beach have already been forced to move inland.
“The ground was basically caving in under their houses,” she said.
Consequences on human health and access to water
Susan M. Natali is a scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center*, she has been studying permafrost thawing in the Arctic for over 13 years.
“I can see the changes, it’s devastating. I don’t even know if I can communicate the magnitude of how this is impacting people. They are literally having to prop up and raise their houses (off the collapsing ground). This is something they might have done in the past maybe once a year, and now they're doing it five times a year because their houses are tilting,” she describes.
Dr. Natali explains that the thawing permafrost is also causing fuel storage units to collapse, and she notes that landfills that had once been in dry areas are now leaking waste and toxic materials such as mercury into lagoons and rivers.
“Rivers are where people get their water and their fish, so there are human health impacts… The thawing it is also causing some river banks to erode making it harder to access clean water,” she adds.
Another problem is that many communities move across the land in the winter using frozen rivers and lakes that are not “freezing” enough anymore.
“This is not only a health risk, but it is also impacting people’s accessibility to food. There are so many things going on… this is a multifaceted problem impacting both natural systems and social systems… This is something that is a reality now for people who are living in the Arctic, and it's been a reality for a long time.”
Humans and wildlife
Eriel Lugt is no stranger to the scientist’s affirmations, her people have been on their land for hundreds of years, knowing where to hunt and how to travel, but now they are being forced to adapt.
“The ancestors taught generations and generations where we need to go while travelling, like which routes of the ice and land are safe to go by. With the climate changing, the land has become dangerous because our hunters are not so sure anymore what’s the safest route to take.”
The Inuit indigenous communities are not the only ones that have had to learn how to adapt.
According to Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, coordinating lead author of the Polar Regions Chapter of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, and Head of Conservation for the Arctic Programme at WWF, animal habitats and living conditions are also being transformed.
“The Arctic is going to warm two to three times as much as the global average over the course of this century. So, when we’re talking about 1.5C degrees globally, we’re talking about 3-5 degrees in the Arctic”, he explains.
This means more frequent heatwaves during both winter and summer, with some of what he calls ‘indirect effects” already happening.
“Heatwaves lead to wildfires and insect outbreaks on land and together this weakens the ecosystems, and they basically burn. They get very vulnerable to defoliation from insect outbreaks, which have cascading effects through the entire ecosystem, making it very difficult for the Arctic species to exist in these places,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.
The expert says that however, there is not an immediate extinction of Arctic species in many places because they are able to move further north to escape warming.
“We are seeing desperate attempts of wildlife. For example, Caribou escaping the summer heat. Also, on the sea, we are seeing a complete takeover of previously Arctic marine ecosystems by boreal fish communities. There are impacts that you can see anytime you are up there.”
Dr. Sommerkorn adds that however, the northward migration of species, or in biological terms “range shifts”, has some hard limits in places such as Siberia, where are very few islands north of the coastline.
Why care? The global impacts
But why should the entire world care about what is happening in the Artic? Dr. Natali explains that what is happening there impacts the future of the entire planet.
“There’s so much carbon stored in permafrost, and it’s frozen now. It’s locked away, and when that thaws, it then becomes vulnerable for being released into the atmosphere to exacerbate global climate change,” she tells UN News.
Plant and animal material frozen in permafrost – called organic carbon – does not decompose or rot away. But as the permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing the material and release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
“Permafrost contains organic soil that’s been building up for thousands and thousands of years. It’s a fossil carbon pool that it hasn’t been part of our earth system for many thousands of years,” Dr. Natali emphasizes.
Dr. Sommerkorn adds that even under low levels of global warming, permafrost thawing could represent the emissions of a medium-sized country.
“And they could grow much more… that is what we know. What we don’t know is how much of that will be compensated on-site. So how much more new plants will be growing on permafrost soils? Taking that carbon back in? But these emissions will be coming,” he explains.
He gives the example of peatlands in Scotland, the host of the latest UN Climate Conference COP26 and a country working to reduce its emissions by more than 50 percent before 2030.
Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing (and releasing carbon).
“They are fighting big time and don’t have a solution yet for the legacy emissions from drained peatlands that were made available for farming and forestry. Once you drain them it’s basically what will happen to permafrost soils once they start thawing deeper in many places: you just commit to centuries of emissions and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Right now, emissions coming from peatlands drained decades ago are almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of Scotland’s emissions. The country is now in a race trying to restore these vital carbon sinks.
“It is a strong and steady contribution at a time when we are desperately trying to keep within our atmospheric budget for Scotland… permafrost carbon will (also) come at a very, very inconvenient time to us.”
But unlike drained peatlands, thawing permafrost cannot be reversed in a human’s lifetime while the global temperature keeps increasing.
Moreover, when permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These microorganisms could make humans and animals very sick.
According to NASA, scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost.
The need for science and adaptation
Back in 2019, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called the thawing of permafrost one of the top 10 emerging issues of environmental concern. At that time, the southern permafrost boundaries in the Artic had receded northwards by 30 to 80km, a significant loss in coverage.
In 2020, UNEP supported a study on Coastal and Offshore Permafrost Rapid Response, where residents of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the western Canadian Arctic participated.
Hundreds of people attended a call for a community science day in “Tuk.” The study concluded that people living along the Arctic coast generally appreciate the efforts of the scientific community to better understand permafrost processes and change.
However, they have rarely been directly involved in the science, provision of logistics support, or, most importantly, guiding scientific research towards issues of importance for Arctic peoples.
UNEP called for incorporating traditional ecological knowledge of coastal environments and processes in research programmes wherever possible.
“It’s amazing to me how people are dealing with this. Because you know, there’s not a support system. I can only speak for the United States, but there is not a support system in place to deal with climate change adaptation. It’s almost as if climate change is happening faster than science can keep up and happening faster than policy can keep up. There are people dealing with this almost on their own and piecing together support to deal with this, there's no governance framework,” highlights Dr. Natali, who recently testified on the issue before the US Congress.
Newtok, a village in Alaska, became one of the first communities in North America to be displaced due to climate change.
Its residents, the Yup'ik tribe, have seen their town crumble little by little due to thawing permafrost, with water taking over to the point they had already decided to move.
Since 2019, they have been progressively relocated to the new village of Mertarvik, which is nine miles away.
A lack of visibility
Meanwhile in Canada, in September 2021, Tuktoyaktuk residents were told that protecting their town from climate change would cost at least $42 million and that any such protective measures could only be “guaranteed” to last until 2052.
In an effort towards adaptation, engineers have undertaken different options to protect the coastline, one of them, putting down layers of Styrofoam insulation and geotextile to protect the permafrost from rising temperatures.
Tuktoyaktuk is eroding away at an average of two metres per year. At the current rate, the entire island will be gone by 2050 unless mitigation is put in place. Other North American and Siberian communities could see a similar fate.
Eriel Lugt and her people know this. For two years now, she has been working in a climate monitoring programme where she goes with other locals to retrieve samples of the land and register any changes.
“I personally think that if enough people worldwide really knew the situation of climate change and if leaders acknowledged it more, then it would be dealt with.”
Ms. Lugt and three other young Inuit activists had the opportunity to tell the story of how their town is dealing with a changing climate during COP25 in Madrid in December 2020.
They shared a trailer of Happening to Us a movie they made in collaboration with their Community Corporation, as well as Canadian filmmakers and academics.
Is there a solution?
Dr. Natali explains that while we can’t now reverse permafrost thaw – because it has already started – ambition is key to avoid the worst of it.
“I think even under our most ambitious scenarios (for reducing global carbon emissions and subsequent warming), we're going to lose, you know, probably 25 per cent of surface permafrost, and then some of the carbon that's in there will go to the atmosphere. But this is much better than less ambitious scenarios which could take us to 75 per cent thaw. Permafrost is a climate change multiplier and so it needs to be an ambition multiplier,” she stresses.
For Dr. Sommerkorn, there still is not enough general understanding of the long-term effects of changes in the cryosphere (frozen elements of the world) at the decision-making levels.
“These changes have a direct link to the ambitions for 2030. The IPCC said it clearly: We have to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels if we want to stay below 1.5C (warming) without overshoot, and cryosphere doesn’t grant us the luxury of overshoot… We will trigger thresholds of melting that cannot be undone. It is very, very hard to regrow glaciers. It is basically impossible to grow back permafrost under raising temperatures”.
The expert explains that by reducing emissions and rates of warming, we are also reducing rates of melting and sea level rise, and giving people time and methods to adapt.
“We have to urgently make decisions now when we plan for infrastructure, cities etc., and we can in parts of the world that have technical help and the funding…others need global help in adaptation funding,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.
An urgent call on world leaders to act
The Head of Conservation of the WWF Arctic Programme was part of a group of scientists and polar and mountain communities who called on leaders at COP26 to devote more attention to the dire global impacts of glacier and ice sheet loss.
“For too long, our planet’s frozen elements have been absent from the climate debate at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) even though their crucial role in determining the future for more than a billion people and our climate is becoming even more clear,” he said at the time, asking the COP organizers to create a dedicated space to discuss actions to be taken in response of the cryosphere crisis.
According to permafrost expert, Dr. Natali, not incorporating important Earth system feedback such as greenhouse gases resulting from frozen ground thaw, makes reaching the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement nearly impossible.
We’re not even doing the math right because permafrost is not properly and fully accounted in the bookkeeping
“It's a big enough challenge to get nations to make the commitments and take action. But imagine that we’re not even aiming for the right target, which is essentially what’s happening right now because we’re not even doing the math right, because permafrost is not properly and fully accounted in the bookkeeping, and because people aren’t thinking about it,” she warns.
She adds that while physically controlling the emissions from permafrost in the ground is not feasible, getting the science to the place where it needs to be and getting that information in the hands of the public and policymakers is.
“Actions we take elsewhere have a multiplying effect, right? The more we reduce fossil fuel emissions, the more we protect forests… this way we are also, in turn, reducing the emissions that will come out of permafrost and the impact on northern communities,” she says.
No longer an early warning
Scientists are asking that a thematic day be set aside during the next round of UN climate talks, COP27, for a dedicated dialogue on cryosphere, to discuss with leaders the impacts and consequences of the changing landscape.
“It is not enough to look at previous IPCC reports and to carry over our understanding that the melting of cryosphere and its effects in the polar regions are an early warning signal. No, at this point there are actually no longer an early warning signal, they are driving climate change and impacts globally,” Dr. Sommerkorn highlights.
The expert notes that the preamble of the COP26 final outcome text reads: Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including in forests, the ocean and the cryosphere...
“Just saying that is already showing that the matter has not been fully taken into account and fully understood, so we will be asking for such communication to go forward,” he adds.
For Dr. Sommerkorn, Glasgow left the world an increased possibility of ramping up the contributions through the Paris Agreement, and this forward momentum should be used to achieve the 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
“I think the happy message here is that it is actually in our hands. We made some advances on good global governance at COP26. It’s not all disastrous, but we must find ways to actually translate that into urgent action. And that’s the key to the cryosphere crisis”.
*Woodwell scientists helped to launch the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and shared the Nobel Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.