Thawing Permafrost

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Every year brings with it alarming reports of permafrost thawing and its associated perils.

  • Permafrost is the layer of soil that’s present under the surface that has remained frozen for more than two years and is found mainly in the polar regions.
  • It covers nine million square miles of the Earth’s surface or a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. Two-thirds of Russia sits on permafrost.
  • As permafrost has been accumulating over centuries in some polar regions, it contains within it organic matter including dead animals and plants.
  • Rising temperatures, wildfires, deforestation have led to the ice under the surface melting, causing permafrost to thaw. Since the 1980s permafrost has been warming between 0.3C to 1C.
  • According to scientific models, permafrost contains 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. To put that in perspective, that’s twice as much carbon present in Earth’s atmosphere.
  • When permafrost thaws, microbes feast on the defrosting biomass. This releases carbon and methane which leads to warmer temperatures leading to further thawing. It creates a feedback loop.
  • In areas where there’s an infrastructure built atop permafrost, its thawing can lead to roads sinking, building foundations cracking. And it happens gradually unlike an earthquake.
  • According to the latest study, 120,000 buildings, 40,000 km of roads and 9,500 km of pipelines could be at risk in Canada and Russia.
  • Thawing permafrost also releases microbes that were buried centuries ago back into the atmosphere. Could that lead to future pandemics? The debate is wide open on that.
  • While technology is being used to ensure thawing of permafrost is limited, it hasn’t led to any optimistic case study.
  • In this reading, we take a look at how thawing permafrost could prove to be a huge climate emergency for people living in the polar regions in particular and for the larger world in general.
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