The Permafrost is Melting: What this Means and How to Help

We imagine that most people don’t worry about the permafrost on a day to day basis, but the health of our northern permafrost is rapidly becoming one of the most worrying aspects about our ability to fight climate change. Today we’re going to do a deep dive into the subject, and learn why it’s so critical, what is happening, and steps you can take to help combat the melting. 

Permafrost refers to any ice locked under the soil that has been frozen for at least two years continuously, but the majority of the world’s permafrost has been frozen for much, much longer than that. While permafrost can happen in any sufficiently cold location, such as the Tibetan plateau, most of it is up north in areas like Canada, Alaska, and Russia. Roughly one fourth of the entire northern hemisphere is permafrost, covering about nine million square miles. Unfortunately that number has been shrinking. As global warming accelerates, ice that has been frozen for thousands or tens of thousands of years is melting, threatening the stability of the region. Due to the fact that the poles are heating up much faster than latitudes near the equator, the permafrost in these northern regions is receding alarmingly quickly. 

Already this has had negative effects for the area. About half the volume of permafrost is water, so when it melts the land above warps, creating bizarre land features, sunken forests, and destroying infrastructure. Mercury and other heavy metals are trapped in the ice, and as the ice melts those toxic metals leak out into the environment and contaminate the water. Disturbingly, the melting ice is also releasing long dormant diseases. Rotting animal and plant life frozen over by the ice thaw with the permafrost, and the bacteria and viruses inside that organic matter can survive that thawing and pick up decomposing where they left off. There has already been one confirmed death from a disease locked in a decades old frozen deer carcass that was released when the permafrost melted, and we know that other deadly diseases are locked in there too. But the biggest danger from these frozen bacteria isn’t the illnesses they can cause but the carbon they release.

 Scientists estimate that there is 1,400- to 1,600 gigatons of carbon locked in frozen plant matter in the permafrost, more than double what is currently in the atmosphere. As the permafrost melts, all this plant matter starts to decompose again, transforming that frozen carbon into CO2 and methane. This creates a feedback loop where the more global warming thaws the land, the more the thaw accelerates global warming, and if somehow it all melts it’d be worse than burning all the remaining oil and coal in the world. Unfortunately we’ve already reached a tipping point for this process. At this point the permafrost is releasing roughly as much carbon as an industrialized nation with output like Japan every year and growing, meaning that if humanity somehow managed to stop our carbon output instantly the permafrost loop alone would still keep going for some amount of time and increase our global temperature.

So what can we do? Luckily the same report that suggested we’re past the tipping point also points out that global attempts to stop climate change will reduce the severity of the melting, so while some melting is inevitable at this point we can at least mitigate the damage. Specifically for the permafrost you can protest against drilling and developing the permafrost in the first place, and breaking up the ice makes it melt faster. But otherwise, this is a symptom of a spiraling out of control climate, and so effective solutions for climate change overall are what we need to stop the permafrost melting. 

As pointed out by Gates Notes, the biggest sources of Greenhouse gasses are Electricity Generation (25%), Agriculture (24%), Manufacturing (21%), and Transportation (14%). So one of the first things to help is if you live in an area that allows you to choose your electricity provider, switch over to renewables. This is an easy switch that doesn’t change your electric bill, just simply switches which power generator plant actually gets your money. Then of course the big one is reducing or eliminating your meat consumption, especially red meats. For manufacturing look for upcycled or second-hand shopping so that you can eliminate the impact of your products from manufacturing. Finally, carpooling, public transportation, and minimizing your airline flights all help with your transportation impact. Hopefully as more and more people take up these personal changes, as well as companies and governments act more on the systematic changes, together these can help the permafrost remain frozen.

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