Analysis & Opinions - Physics Today

Permafrost Is an Undefined Variable in the Climate Equation

  • David Kramer
| June 14, 2022

Russia is home to the bulk of the Arctic’s permafrost. The country’s invasion of Ukraine jeopardizes a new initiative to pin down how thawing will impact climate change.

The thawing of permafrost—the long-frozen ground that covers much of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia—could be a climatic time bomb. Or not.

Estimates of the carbon that could be released into the atmosphere from thawing of the frozen soils just beneath the surface of much of Arctic Alaska, Canada, Siberia, and Scandinavia range from 30 to 150 billion tons by 2100. The upper number is roughly equivalent to the cumulative emissions from the US for the next eight decades if its current emissions rate continues.

A newly announced research project aims to pin down estimates of permafrost thaw and its impact on the affected populations. But the war in Ukraine threatens monitoring and data collection in Russia, which is home to most of the world’s permafrost.

Drop in the bucket or major problem?

Climate scientists now say that the Arctic is warming at three to four times the rate of the world as a whole. That’s up to double the rate observed just a decade ago. Thawing permafrost has already led to the collapse of homes, roads, and other infrastructure. A literature review published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment in January found that permafrost degradation has damaged as much as 80% of buildings in some Siberian cities and 30% of roads in the Tibetan Plateau.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kramer, David.“Permafrost Is an Undefined Variable in the Climate Equation.” Physics Today, June 14, 2022.

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