Press Release - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard Belfer Center's Arctic Initiative Announces New “Permafrost Pathways” Project

| Apr. 11, 2022

Multi-Year Collaboration Will Fill Critical Gaps in Permafrost Data and Impacts

CAMBRIDGE, MA — Today, the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in collaboration with Woodwell Climate Research Center, the Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Alaska Native Science Commission, announced the launch of Permafrost Pathways: Connecting Science, People, and Policy for Arctic Justice and Global Climate. A multipronged $41 million initiative catalyzed through the The Audacious Project, the Pathways project will bring together leading experts in climate science, policy action, and environmental justice to inform and develop adaptation and mitigation strategies that address the local and global impacts of Arctic permafrost thaw.

“Developing appropriate responses to climate change and its impacts requires harnessing the most up-to-date science to inform adaptation efforts everywhere and global emission-reduction targets” said Dr. John P. Holdren, Co-Director of the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School. “Reducing uncertainties about current and future rates of permafrost thaw and the associated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane is essential for shaping both the global targets and adaptation measures across the Arctic. By linking science, people, and policy, Permafrost Pathways is taking an integrated approach to permafrost thaw in all its dimensions.”

Permafrost holds more than double the amount of carbon that is already in the atmosphere.

Fifteen percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere is underlain by permafrost — perennially frozen ground that, collectively, holds more than double the amount of carbon that is already in the atmosphere. As the Arctic warms, permafrost is thawing at an accelerated pace, threatening Arctic residents as the ground beneath them collapses and releasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that will threaten nations worldwide. Current estimates for carbon emissions from permafrost thaw range from 30 to more than 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100 — with upper estimates on par with or exceeding the cumulative emissions from the entire United States if its current emissions rate were to continue through the end of the century. Yet, due to monitoring and modeling gaps and the large resulting uncertainty, these emissions are largely omitted from today’s global carbon budgets and international climate policy, resulting in a potentially severe miscalculation of how aggressively nations must pursue emissions reductions as well as a lack of clarity about what actions policymakers and local communities need to take to adapt.

The Pathways project will bring multifaceted expertise and decades of experience in Arctic research, climate policy, and protecting the rights of vulnerable populations to bear on three connected efforts. Woodwell Climate Research Center will coordinate a pan-Arctic monitoring network and modeling initiative that will fill critical gaps in data and improve the ability to track and forecast permafrost thaw and resulting carbon emissions.

“Arctic residents and scientists have been observing permafrost thaw for decades, but the scale and coordination of the research in this space hasn’t been sufficient to meet the urgency of the threat and drive meaningful policy change,” said Dr. Susan Natali, Arctic Program Director at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Project Lead for Permafrost Pathways. “With Permafrost Pathways, we will be able to significantly reduce gaps in permafrost data to inform international mitigation policy and co-create just and equitable adaptation strategies for communities already facing the impacts of a rapidly-changing Arctic.”

Armed with updated data and models that reduce the current levels of uncertainty on permafrost emissions, the Arctic Initiative will help lead efforts to supply key national and international policymakers with the information necessary to accurately incorporate permafrost emissions projections into climate mitigation policy. By leveraging its strong existing relationships with international bodies and top climate advisors in the United States, China, India, and other major carbon-emitting countries, continually stressing the urgency of considering permafrost emissions, and providing concrete policy options, the Initiative will motivate key policy actors to ratchet up national emissions commitments and respond to the risks posed by permafrost thaw.

At the same time, recognizing that permafrost thaw is already impacting Arctic residents, the Pathways project will work with Alaska Native communities to co-create equitable, community-driven adaptation strategies and advance a just governance framework to ensure Arctic residents have the necessary resources to confront hazards stemming from climate change.

“Communities in the Arctic, including Alaska Native tribes, are already confronting impossible decisions about where and how they can live in the face of life-threatening impacts of permafrost thaw,” said Robin Bronen, Executive Director at the Alaska Institute for Justice. “It is essential that we work in partnership with these communities to create equitable, data-driven, adaptation strategies and relocation frameworks that center resilience and protect human rights, and Permafrost Pathways will enable us to deepen the critical work we’re already doing, and will need to continue to do, in this space.” 
For more information about Permafrost Pathways, please visit For more information about the Audacious Project, please visit

For media inquiries, contact: Elizabeth Hanlon (

About the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School: Launched in 2017, the Arctic Initiative strives to address the challenges and opportunities being created by rapid climate change in the Arctic. By integrating insights from cutting-edge scientific research, Indigenous knowledge, and policy analysis, the Initiative seeks to improve understanding of the regional and global impacts of Arctic climate change; work with local, regional, national, and international stakeholders to develop responsive policies and actions; and train the next generation of interdisciplinary Arctic experts and leaders.

About Woodwell Climate Research Center:Woodwell Climate Research Center is an organization of renowned researchers who work with a worldwide network of partners to understand and combat climate change. We bring together hands-on experience and 35 years of policy impact to develop societal-scale solutions that can be put into immediate action. Our Falmouth, MA headquarters are located on the traditional and sacred land of the Wampanoag people who still occupy this land, and whose history, language, traditional ways of life, and culture continue to influence this vibrant community. Woodwell Climate has earned Charity Navigator’s highest rating of 4 stars, as well as a Gold Seal of Transparency from GuideStar. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

About the Alaska Institute for Justice: Founded in 2005, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ) is dedicated to protecting the human rights of Alaskans. Based in Anchorage and Juneau, AIJ’s staff works with Alaska Native communities to ensure that their right to self-determination is protected as they navigate the impacts of the climate crisis on their communities.
About The Audacious Project: Launched in April 2018, The Audacious Project is a collaborative funding initiative that is catalyzing social impact on a grand scale. Housed at TED, the nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, and with support from leading social impact advisor The Bridgespan Group, The Audacious Project convenes funders and social entrepreneurs with the goal of supporting bold solutions to the world’s most urgent challenges. The funding collective is made up of respected organizations and individuals in philanthropy, including the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, The Valhalla Charitable Foundation, ELMA Philanthropies and more. The Audacious Project works with the Science Philanthropy Alliance to identify and vet high-quality basic science projects. Each year The Audacious Project supports a new cohort. The 2021 recipients are The Center for Tech and Civic Life, ClimateWorks: Drive Electric, Code for America, Glasswing International, The International Refugee Assistance Project, myAgro, Noora Health, The Tenure Facility, and Woodwell Climate Research Center.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Harvard Belfer Center's Arctic Initiative Announces New “Permafrost Pathways” Project .” Press Release, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 11, 2022.


John P. Holdren