Permafrost – What is it and Why is it important?

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What is permafrost?

Permafrost is any soil or rock that has been frozen beneath the ground for at least two consecutive years. Ground ice does not need to be present for there to be permafrost. In some places, it found is deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

Permafrost can be from as little as a couple of inches thick. However, this usually thaws out during the summer. Near the Arctic circle, it can be as thick as over 2000 feet.

Permafrost stores the carbon of dead animals and plants that were frozen before they could fully decompose.

Permafrost Infographic
Permafrost Infographic

Where is permafrost found?

Where is permafrost found

Most permafrost is found at high altitudes and in extremely cold areas of the earth like the Arctic and Antartic. Permafrost covers approximately 24% of the Northern Hemisphere, some of which has been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years.

Large quantities of permafrost occur in Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and other higher mountain regions.

permafrost melting
Melting Permafrost

 

Types of Permafrost

There are four different types of permafrost:

  1. Discontinuous permafrost
  2. Continuous permafrost
  3. Alpine permafrost
  4. Subsea permafrost

Discontinuous permafrost

Discontinuous permafrost is a type of permafrost that can be described as seasonal. It typically occurs in areas where the mean annual soil surface temperature is between 0°C and 5°C.

It is discontinuous because it thaws out during the hotter summer month periods. Discontinuous permafrost is found in the southern shore of Hudson Bay, Canada.

Discontinuous permafrost can be split up into two categories:

Extensive discontinuous permafrost: This type of permafrost typically covers 50-90% of the landscape. It is usually found in areas where the mean temperature is lies between −2 and −4 °C.

Sporadic permafrost: Typically, this covers approximately less than 50% of the landscape and is usually found in areas where the mean temperature lies between 0 °C  and −2 °C.

Continuous Permafrost

Continuous permafrost has an average annual soil temperature below -5 °C and because of this incredibly low temperature it is never sufficient to that the permafrost. Most permafrost is located in the Northern Hemisphere

In the Antarctic continent, it is mainly overlain by glaciers which the terrain beneath it is prone to basal melting. The Antartic is significantly underlain with permafrost, some of which has the potential to warm up and thaw.

Alpine Permafrost

The alpine regions consist of mountainous areas found in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Alpine permafrost exists at lower latitudes in areas of high elevation. 

According to estimated from Bockheim and Munroe, it is estimated that the total area of the Alpine region that has permafrost is 3,560,000 km2  (1,370,000 sq mi). However, data from the Alpine region is scarce as it is found in high plateaus and mountains.

Subsea Permafrost

Subsea permafrost is found beneath the surface of the seabed and is located in the polar regions. During the last Ice Age, sea levels were low and a large portion of Earth’s water was in ice sheets found on land. 

According to a study by Stockholm University, the subsea permafrost located below the East Siberian Arctic Sea is thawing at a rate of 14cm per year. That’s a lot faster than the thawing rate of permafrost on land. 

Gases released from permafrost

What is the Risk of Permafrost Melting?

Permafrost melting has been said among the industry to be a ‘ticking time-bomb’. The outcome of it melting has the potential to release an estimated 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon in the form of organic matter.

When permafrost thaws, it heats up this matter which causes it to decompose. Finally, releasing the Carbon Dioxide and Methane that it holds. These are greenhouse gases that have a massive effect on warming the planet.

However, Methane is a major issue. Methane is a staggering 84 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide so it stays in the atmosphere far longer. Reversing the effects of global warming will be more difficult if this Methane is released.

It becomes a viscous cycle as the more the planet heats up, the more permafrost that gets released.

Frozen Diseases

Scientists have warned that the permafrost could be trapping diseases that have been previously eradicated. There have already been cases of this happening in places where permafrost is found.

In Northern Siberia, a child died from an outbreak of anthrax that scientists have said came from the corpse of a reindeer buried 70 years ago, before being uncovered by melting permafrost.

Likewise, in 2014 scientists revived a harmless virus named Pithovirus Sibericum. Previously locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years. This begs the question as to what other potentially lethal viruses are trapped.

Risks to Infrastructure

A permafrost thaw could cause serious threat to buildings, roads and pipelines with the risk of mudslides and sinking land.

Greenpeace published an article in 2009 that said thawing soil in Russia’s permafrost areas causing buildings, bridges, and pipelines to deform and collapse. Estimated costs were approximately 1.3 billion euros (nearly $1.5 billion) in repairs.

Increased Temperature

According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, there is high confidence that temperatures in the Arctic regions have increased since the early 1980s. Noted temperatures have shown that in parts of Northern Alaska it has increased up to 3 °C and up to 2 °C in parts of North Russia.

Arctic temperatures are expected to increase at approximately twice the global rate due to permafrost. The IPCC expects the temperature in these regions to increase between 1.5 and 2.5 °C by 2040 and with 2 to 7.5 °C by 2100.

Conclusion

Whether we like it or not, permafrost is becoming a massive problem among global warming. The temperature changes that come with it are massive and could have staggering effects on the ecosystems surrounding these areas.

Unfortunately, the only solution to this problem is helping lower the amounts of greenhouse gases. The only way this can be solved is if countries around the globe come together and actively make changes. Not just discuss it.

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