Thawing Permafrost and its Consequences


    In Context

    • Recently, the  IPCC report has warned that increasing global warming will result in reductions in Arctic permafrost.
    • And, the thawing of the ground is expected to release greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

    What is Permafrost?

    • Permafrost is ground that remains completely frozen at 0 degrees Celsius or below for at least two years. Permafrost regions are not always covered in snow.
    • It is defined solely based on temperature and duration. The permanently frozen ground, consisting of soil, sand, and rock held together by ice, is believed to have formed during glacial periods dating several millennia.


    Regions of Permafrost

    • Found below 22 per cent of the land surface on Earth, mostly in polar zones and regions with high mountains.
    • They are spread across 55 per cent of the landmass in Russia and Canada, 85 per cent in the US state of Alaska, and possibly complete Antarctica.
    • In northern Siberia, it forms a layer that is 1,500 m thick; 740 m in northern Alaska.

    What is Permafrost Thawing?

    • As Earth’s climate warms, the permafrost is thawing. That means the ice inside the permafrost melts, leaving behind water and soil.

    Consequences of Permafrost Thawing

    Thawing permafrost can have dramatic impacts on our planet and the things living on it. For example:

    • Impact Infrastructure: When permafrost is frozen, it’s harder than concrete. However, thawing permafrost can destroy houses, roads and other infrastructure. 
    • Altered landscapes:  Thawing permafrost alters natural ecosystems in many ways as well. It can create thermokarsts, areas of sagging ground, which may alter the flow of rivers and streams, degrade water quality.                                                                                             
    • Release of Greenhouse gases & Climate change: When permafrost is frozen, plant material in the soil—called organic carbon—can’t decompose, or rot away. As permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing this material. This process releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.
    • Risk of disease: When permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. 
      • These newly-unfrozen microbes could make humans and animals very sick. Scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost, which can be a reason for a new pandemic.

    Source: NASA

    How can Permafrost thawing be stopped?

    • By reducing our carbon footprint, investing in energy-efficient products, and supporting climate-friendly technology we can help preserve the world’s permafrost.
    • Supporting climate-friendly businesses, legislation, and policies, we can help preserve the world’s permafrost and avert a vicious cycle of an ever-warming planet.

    About IPCC

    • It is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change.
    • It was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
    • The IPCC currently has 195 members. 
    • The IPCC provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
    • For the assessment reports, IPCC scientists volunteer their time to assess the thousands of scientific papers published each year.
    • The IPCC does not conduct its own research.

    Source: IE