A report led by Merritt R. Turestsky talks about the massive threat that is permafrost for our planet. Permafrost soils from northern regions will lead to an acceleration of global warming. “We are watching this sleeping giant wake up right in front of our eyes,” says Turetsky.
The report is published in the May 2 issue of Nature.
Researchers explain how frozen soils hold down organic matter. Permafrost makes microorganisms break down that matter which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This accelerates global warming, and permafrost soils represent a huge threat as they have twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does. About one-quarter of the northern hemisphere is affected by permafrost.
The quick collapse of the permafrost due to global warming is a severe threat
Researchers also explain how permafrost is quickly affecting northern areas. “But models are ignoring an even more troubling problem. Frozen soil doesn’t just lock up carbon — it physically holds the landscape together. Across the Arctic and Boreal regions, permafrost is collapsing suddenly as pockets of ice within it melts. Instead of a few centimeters of soil thawing each year, several meters of soil can become destabilized within days or weeks. The land can sink and be inundated by swelling lakes and wetlands.”
The report also explains that these changes are significant and they can be observed easily. The effect is a quick one as well. Scientists told that their field sites are destroyed by ice collapse, and this happens incredibly fast. “Abrupt thawing of permafrost is dramatic to watch. Returning to field sites in Alaska, for example, we often find that lands that were forested a year ago are now covered with lakes2. Rivers that once ran clear are thick with sediment. Hillsides can liquefy, sometimes taking sensitive scientific equipment with them,” reads the report.
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