What is Permafrost?
In the northern hemisphere, approximately 24% of the land is covered in permafrost. Permafrost is soil that remains in a frozen state throughout the year, which can span from dozens of metres deep down to a kilometre and a half deep in some locations. During the summer season, it’s common for the surface to thaw however with surface air temperatures in arctic regions warming at twice the rate of the global average, this actively thawing layer is deepening as time goes on.
As permafrost thawing becomes more extensive, this leads to greater instances of subsidence, landslides, flooding and more. However, before the land gets to this point, the land begins to change. Water can build up underneath the top layer of the soil during periods of melt and as temperatures cool and this water freezes, the land above it gets pushed upward forming dome-shaped hills over time called Pingos (“Bulgunnyaks” in the Yakut language). These tend to rise as fall as seasons pass and most often these Pingos end up collapsing in on themselves, which can take decades.
Loss of permafrost leaving behind hummocks (Pingos) – emile ducke
What’s going on in Siberia?
Let’s zoom into the Siberian Arctic, specifically the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas. What we have going on here is something not seen (yet) in any other arctic region. Instead of freezing water beneath the top layer of soil, what’s occurring is the build-up of pressurised gas. In contrast to the calm nature of the Pingos, these features are a bit more dynamic, building up over a shorter timescale and ending with a bang. What’s left behind is what researchers have dubbed “gas emission craters.”
By July 2020, 17 gas emission craters had been identified. The first crater had been traced back to 2013 on the Yamal Peninsula and the latest was dated to July 2020 with a width of 70m and depth of 50m. By the time researchers found it, the base of the crater had flooded with water due to the proximity of the river, which adds to the difficult nature of these features to be analysed as they can quickly blend in with their surroundings.
(Credit: Greg Fiske)
How do these craters form?
The arctic is known to have approximately twice the amount of carbon that’s currently in the atmosphere. This can be in the form of organic material or in gases trapped within ice crystals beneath the surface. In the regions where Yamal and Gydan are situated, these areas hold mass amounts of gas and oil as well which could be contributing to the gas build-up leading to the explosive nature of the gas emission craters found there. With the additional factor of warm weather thawing out the local permafrost, this is allowing organic material to decompose and ice crystals to melt, expelling methane and CO2 into the atmosphere.
What are the costs associated?
At this point, researchers have quantified that approximately 10 gigatonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. If the earth warms by 3ºC by 2100, researchers have estimated that 280 gigatonnes of CO2 and 3 gigatonnes of Methane will be released into the atmosphere. It is important to note that although 3 gigatonnes of Methane seems small, this greenhouse gas has 10-20 times the effect on warming compared to CO2.
Now what does that mean in an economic sense? In an article by Yumashev et al. 2019 [HK1] , they found that feedback mechanisms promote a weakened albedo due to ice and snow melt and the permafrost feedback becomes more positive in warmer climates. When adding these factors together, they found the associated economic costs under each scenarios in the Paris Agreement:
- 1.5ºC: $24.8 trillion
- 2ºC: $33.8 trillion
- Mitigation levels consistent with current national pledges: $66.9 trillion
Looking at these values, melting of artic permafrost could add 4-6% onto the total cost of climate change. Currently, costs associated with permafrost melt add up to $2.3 billion per year for the country of Russia as a whole. This includes damages to structures and infrastructure as well as impacts on the arctic mining, oil and gas sectors, which make up around 20% of the country’s GDP and almost 25% of exports. Already in the city of Norilsk (which was built in the 1930’s), approximately 60% of the city’s infrastructure has been damaged by permafrost thaw and 10% of buildings have been abandoned. It is expected that by 2050, estimated national costs could add up to $84 billion… that’s 7.5% of Russia’s GDP.
What can we do?
In regard to slowing permafrost melt, humans need to limit our anthropogenic emissions as quickly as possible. At the moment, scientists say we haven’t passed the tipping point. Permafrost has a very slow feedback cycle, which means that impacts of heating will take time to push past the tipping point, however in about 50 years if this boundary is breached, there might not be much we can do.
And on that bright note, I’ll sign off this week’s blog post. Check back in two weeks from now to read about our next topic: Alpine Glacial Outburst Floods.
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[HK1] Yumashev, D., Hope, C., Schaefer, K. et al. Climate policy implications of nonlinear decline of Arctic land permafrost and other cryosphere elements. Nat Commun 10, 1900 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09863-x
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