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the environment

Expert calls permafrost warming in areas of Alaska 'unbelievable'

One of the world's leading experts on permafrost is sounding the alarm: Permafrost in parts of Alaska will likely start to thaw by 2070, releasing methane and accelerating climate change.

Permafrost is soil that is frozen throughout the year and has spent at least two years below the freezing point of water. It is found primarily in the Arctic, as well as in some Antarctic and Alpine regions, and researchers believe the amount of methane found in permafrost is equal to more than double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. Prof. Vladimir Romanovsky at the University of Alaska and the monitoring organization Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost said that in the northern part of Alaska, permafrost has been warming by about one-tenth of a degree Celsius every year since the mid-2000s. "When we started measurements it was -8C, but now it's coming to almost -2.5 on the Arctic coast," he told BBC News. "It is unbelievable — that's the temperature we should have here in central Alaska around Fairbanks but not there."

Warming permafrost has been connected to roads buckling, sinkholes forming, and trees falling over, and Romanovsky said evidence found in some areas of Alaska, including around Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, points toward permafrost not only warming up, but thawing in roughly 50 years. "Permafrost won't start to thaw there in 20 years, because the latest rate of warming is too high and will bounce back, but if you look at the whole record it seems it will definitely start to thaw by 2070-80, and nobody was talking about that before," he told BBC News. "It was assumed it would be stable for this century but it seems that's not true any more."

Prof. Ted Schuur of Northern Arizona University told BBC News that the record wildfires in Alaska over the summer also helped speed up the thaw, as the permafrost was exposed to warmer air. "Even if we stopped all emissions today, the Arctic has momentum where there is going to be more warming, more permafrost degradation, and some carbon coming out already — we have started the ball rolling in some senses," he said. "It is probably not triggering a runaway climate effect but it adds to our problem. It accelerates the problem of climate change. To me that is worrisome because it makes the problem harder."