Permafrost Thaw Intensifying In Northern Canada

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Permafrost thaw and decay is intensifying in northern Canada, according to recent research from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey. To be more specific, the research found that out of a half-million-square-mile section of northwest Canada (the part the researchers analyzed), roughly 52,000 square miles is undergoing permafrost decay and collapse.

52,000 square miles — for those who need a comparison to make sense of the figure — is more or less the size of Alabama. I’m sure all of you have been to Alabama, yeah?

Anyway, why does this matter? Because all of the carbon that was bound up in that frozen mud and dirt is now free to be released (one way or another). As the newly melted permafrost continues breaking down, methane will be released directly; and as erosion into tributary rivers and the Arctic Ocean itself increases, breakdown and carbon release from the ocean will increase.

Inside Climate News provides more:

“Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic including in Alaska, Siberia, and Scandinavia, the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology in early February. The study didn’t address the issue of greenhouse gas releases from thawing permafrost. But its findings could help quantify the immense global scale of the thawing, which will contribute to more accurate estimates of carbon emissions.

“The new study was aimed at measuring the geographical scope of thawing permafrost in northwest Canada. Using satellite images and other data, the team studied the edge of the former Laurentide Ice Sheet, a vast expanse of ice that covered two-thirds of North America during the last ice age. The disintegration of the permafrost was visible in 40- to 60-mile wide swaths of terrain, showing that, ‘extensive landscapes remain poised for major climate-driven change’.”

As a reminder here, current estimates are that the world’s permafrost contains roughly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere — so, permafrost melt stands to potentially have an enormous impact on atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide levels.

“Things have really taken off. Climate warming is now making that happen. It’s exactly what we should expect with climate change,” commented Steven V Kokelj, lead researcher on the recent study. “And the maps that we produced clearly indicated it’s not just a random pattern. We’re sort of connecting dots here for the scientific community.”

Notably, extensive permafrost melting is now also occurring in Siberia and Alaska. Something of particular note is the rapid rate at which newly melted permafrost in coastal regions of the Arctic is being consumed by the ocean — in some places, 60 and 70 foot chunks of land are being swallowed every year.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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