Permafrost thaws as global warming sets in

Stone circles caused by permafrost on the Norwegian archipelago of  Svalbard. Image: By Hannes Grobe, via Wikimedia Commons  

Global warming is at work far below the surface, at depths seemingly insulated from the greenhouse effect. This is bad news for the permafrost.

LONDON, 29 January, 2019 – Even in the coldest places – 10 metres below the surface of the polar wastes – global warming has begun to work. A new study of the frozen soils in both hemispheres shows that between 2007 and 2016, they warmed by an average of 0.3°C.

This remained true within the Arctic and Antarctic zones, in the highest mountain regions of Europe and Asia, and even in the Siberian tundra, where the temperatures at depth rose by almost a whole degree.

New research into the permafrost, defined as territory where soil has been frozen for at least two consecutive years, suggests that much of it may not be permanently frozen for much longer.

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that along with the tilth, clays and sediments the icy structures store vast amounts of carbon in the form of yet-to-be-decomposed plant material.

So the thawing permafrost could surrender even more warming agents in the form of greenhouse gases, and accelerate global warming even further.

“The permafrost isn’t simply warming on a local and regional scale, but worldwide and at virtually the same pace as climate warming”

Researchers based in Potsdam, Germany report in the journal Nature Communications that they and colleagues in the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost monitored and measured soil temperatures in boreholes at 154 locations; more than 120 of them over a 10-year cycle. In a dozen locations the temperatures actually fell, and at 40 locations there was virtually no change.

The most dramatic warming was in the Arctic, where soils that were more than 90% permafrost increased temperatures by 0.3°C, and the Siberian north, where temperatures rose by 0.9°C or more. Air temperatures over those regions had risen by an average of 0.6°C in the same decade. In those Arctic regions with less than 90% permafrost, the frozen ground had warmed by 0.2°C.

“In these regions there is more and more snowfall, which insulates the permafrost in two ways, following the igloo principle,” said Boris Biskaborn of the Alfred Wegener Institute, at the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, who led the study.

“In winter snow protects the soil from extreme cold, which on average produces a warming effect. In spring it reflects the sunlight, and prevents the soils from being exposed to too much warmth, at least until the snow has completely melted away.”

Widespread impact

The scientists also report that soil temperature rises were recorded in the Alps of Europe, the mountain ranges of Scandinavia, and in the Himalayas.

Other scientists have already this year identified potential disaster for many settlements in the Arctic regions: the once-hard-frozen topsoils are in danger of thawing, and since these support industrial buildings, oil and gas pipelines, road surfaces, and even whole towns, the danger of severe damage to infrastructure is growing.

And, the researchers warn, even if the world sticks to its promise, made by 195 nations in Paris in 2015, and contains global warming to no more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels by 2100, there is still a likelihood that the permafrost will disappear over a large area, to surrender more greenhouse gases, and trigger more warming.

“All this data tells us that the permafrost isn’t simply warming on a local and regional scale, but worldwide and at virtually the same pace as climate warming, which is producing a substantial warming of the air and increased snow thickness, especially in the Arctic,” said Guido Grosse, who heads permafrost research in Potsdam. “These two factors produce a warming of the once permanently frozen ground.” – Climate News Network

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