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Permafrost

The Arctic's permafrost is melting. Here's why it's a pretty big deal.

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The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world, and the effects are beginning to show.

You've probably heard the statistic that human activity is the primary culprit of fossil fuel emissions -- which, research shows, leads to warmer temperatures across the globe. But new scientific studies spearheaded by the Woods Hole Research Center suggest that the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic Circle increases fossil fuel emissions.

"There's a lot of carbon stored in permafrost. It's in the form of organic matter -- organic matter is just dead and decaying plant parts. And this has been building up in the Arctic for thousands of years."
Sue Natali, scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center


In fact, there's twice as much carbon in permafrost as in the atmosphere, and nearly three times as much as in all of the world's forests, Natali explained.

So when the ground begins to warm, the permafrost, which is scientifically defined as ground that has been frozen for two or more years, also begins to melt. Microbes subsequently use released carbon as a source of energy -- a process that emits two known fossil fuels into the atmosphere: carbon dioxide and methane.

Thawing permafrost increases carbon dioxide

According to NASA, fossil fuel emissions, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, contribute to what's called the "greenhouse effect." These gases act as a thermal blanket, absorbing heat and warming surface temperatures.

Greenhouse effect

A layer of greenhouse gases – primarily water vapor, and including much smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – acts as a thermal blanket for the Earth, absorbing heat and warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).

Thawing permafrost, Natali added, is particularly harmful because these levels of released carbon emissions aren't accounted for in research.

"These greenhouse gases are global greenhouse gases," Natali told Circa. "So what that means is what happens in the U.S. affects everyone else. What happens in China, the Arctic also affects everyone else."

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But that's not all. The transformation of once-frozen ground into softer soil creates infrastructure concerns. Roads may begin to buckle, and buildings may start to crack as the ground beneath them becomes increasingly unstable.

"There are a lot of communities in Alaska and in other parts of the Arctic that are living on top of permafrost and they're having to deal with these issues of infrastructure," she said.

That includes the nearly 6,000 residents who live in an Alaskan town known as Bethel, where Natali and her team conducted their research.

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Scientists explore the effects of thawing permafrost in the Arctic

Besides carbon emissions, melting permafrost also creates a ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. When dry grounds become wet, and as lake basins begin to soften, vegetation and migration patterns are forced to adapt. One of those shifts include the growth of tall shrubs.

"This is also changing the wildlife that feed off these shrubs. So I've heard stories like -- people talking about, 'Oh we're seeing moose in places where we've never seen moose come up to this place before.'"
Sue Natali

Fortunately, Natali added, permafrost can be refrozen once temperatures cool down. That means it's not too late for policymakers and the general public to work together to curb fossil fuel emissions to reverse rising temperatures.

"Each day, and each year, that we wait to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is this lag leading to more permafrost thaw," she said.

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