The permafrost is…melting!

It is hard to imagine, when living beloww the 66o33’ N parallel, what life is like in the Arctic Circle, much less which impacts of climate change they endure. But these impacts are dire and have consequences for us all. While attending a Climate Week panel with the Woodwell Climate Research Center (WCRC), we learned from moderator Heather Goldstone, that “the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet,” causing ancient glaciers to fracture and melt, sea levels to rise and cause damage to infrastructure in communities. She added, “Arctic sea ice is at its second lowest on record and it is expected that the summers will soon be entirely ice free.”

But it is not just the ice – the ground – the permafrost is thawing at alarming rates. WCRC’s Arctic Program Director, Susan Natali, said the “perennially frozen ground is 1.5 times the size of the United States” and warned that at this point, we will face “30-70% permafrost loss if we take little action.” Permafrost contains “twice as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere and three times as much as in the forests. Arctic has been carbon sink for hundreds of thousands of years, as temperatures warm, the permafrost regions may turn new source of carbon into the atmosphere.” She then clarified that the uncertainty of how much permafrost we will lose comes from “knowledge gaps of how much permafrost will melt. A wide range of permafrost thaw comes from human behavior. It will be 30% if we act immediately – if we continue as we are, the higher range or 70%.”

Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard, John P. Holdren, agreed with assessment, adding “Methane emissions from thermokarst lakes can more than double the methane releases from Arctic by 2100. Some of this methane may be come in from unfrozen fossil fuel rather than bacteria. Emissions from subsea permafrost may also have been previously neglected,” when looking at the data. Mr. Holdren noted that if all this extra carbon and methane is added to atmosphere, “our entire carbon budget at the 1.5oC plan at high end, it could eat the whole thing” – meaning –  if the high range of expected additional GHGs emitted purely from permafrost melt – would encompass the entire range of carbon we can put into the atmosphere before our planet is uninhabitable.

In looking at public health and safety, Senior Fellow, Arctic Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairsm, Joel Clement noted that Reindeer herds shrinking. Operating season in Alaska is dependent on ice roads, and the season is now shorter by up to 2 months since 1980. “The thaw is so bad, it has reached a cultural tipping point” and has become the “go to excuse for industrial companies,” explaining that after it’s disaster this summer, Russian mining giant “Nornickel was quick to call it permafrost melt, when it was negligence.”

As for food and health security, he explained, “it’s a very difficult place to get all of these. Permafrost has combined with sea ice melt, an increasingly rapid coastal erosion leading to relocation. As winter river travel on ice not possible, this constrains the economy.” Mr Clement continued to speak of how COVID was a special stress test for the Arctic health infrastructure, as resources are stretched thinly and communication via broadband is not universal. “Permafrost thaw is not operating in a vacuum. Extremely difficult to know the cost of everything happening, but it is profoundly destabilizing.”

Senior Fellow, Arctic Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Fran Olmer noted that “much of the state of Alaska is impacted, with 180 communities affected by flooding to various degrees. They have identified 31 priority action communities that suffer serious erosion, permafrost melt, flooding, winds, storm damage that need immediate attention. There is no state of Alaska comprehensive mitigation or Federal plan either – whose job is it to help these communities?

We’ve tried lots of solutions – Denali Commission – that hasn’t worked out very well. Coalitions of tribes and villages have helped. Coastal communities around the world are facing flooding because of same reason that these communities are relocating.

Federal government support comes “when there are leaders that understand climate change” but that in many communities, “time is wasting while we are not taking affirmative steps towards resiliency. Obama tried to a concerted effort with Arctic council – it has not been continued under the current administration.”

She concluded, “citizens need to know that waiting means there is more loss of life, more damage to property and it will affect our people and country in a very serious way.”

Woodwell Researcher and subsistence hunter Darcy Peter, spoke of her on the ground experience, where “life is very different no roads, no cars, no jobs, we rely on natural resources and have huge cultural tie. Permafrost thaw coupled with thermo erosion causing Yukon river” to become “more shallow and wider.”

Changes from the permafrost melt have resulted in “braiding rivers – changing spawning channels that contain king salmon,” which accounts for “34% of food source for Alaskans, and directly affects populations of King Salmon” which are in “mass decline – hugely increasing our reliability on another food source: moose.” –

Ms. Peter continued to speak about the “big disconnect between climate change & policy to provide for optimal hunting. Climate change is changing rutting season, but the dates that subsistence hunters get stays the same – we had four weeks to hunt this year, and during three of those weeks, the moose were not available.”

Ms. Peter agreed with Mr. Holdren, in that the main models used to estimate carbon budgets, have they have NOT included permafrost thaw – an accelerated emission of CH4 from Arctic soils – so they are underestimating the potential for them to undercut the trajectories.

Susan Natali added, “none of these models included these abrupt events, or the interaction between fire and permafrost. All the things we know that are missing pushing us into a worse scenario with less understanding of it.”

Mr. Holdren said “strategies to reverse this thaw should first and foremost include reducing carbon emissions, as well as increasing carbon uptake by planting trees on a large scale, via carbon capture.”

Joel mentioned that refreezing the permafrost is good mitigation but doesn’t address the root of the problem,” of the thaw. He continued, “the goal in north is to build resilience – infrastructure deficit – fundamental stuff, how do we get health clinic in right places how do we expand broadband connectivity – COVID made that painfully clear, many arctic communities don’t have that. Give them a fair shake like we do in the lower 48.” He continued, “if we make it, we can repurpose fossil fuels money to pay for it. People in the north are incredibly resilient, but we need resources, we need investment.”

When asked about interconnectivity through communication and broad band, Darcy said “communication changes the way people will understand: can’t send paper to community – huge disconnect in language. Need language that is very clear and very simple.”

Ms. Natali concluded, “scientists hear all the knowledge – but we need to start listening more to the people who are experiences all problems at once. We need to listen to Indigenous knowledge holders and communities, otherwise we won’t solve this problem.”

Sally Barr