Warming temperatures in the Arctic are accelerating the thaw of carbon-rich permafrost and threatening to add massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to an atmosphere already overheating from the buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
More than half that permafrost lies beneath remote Russian soil, where scientists have long worked in an international research community that freely shared its field stations, climate sensors and data sets to better understand the rapidly changing polar region’s planetary impacts.
Researchers are especially eager to know when a dangerous tipping point may be reached that would trigger the release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases stored in frozen soils.
But then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and all that cooperation came to a halt, part of the fallout of Western sanctions on Russia. Since then, international researchers outside Russia have applied creative workarounds in order to continue their research, but problems remain.
Drought, driven by a combination of El Niño and climate change, has disrupted shipping through the Panama Canal in recent months. Dropping water levels in Lake Gatun forced Panama Canal authorities to pose restrictions on the number of ships that can pass the canal, dropping from the normal 38 down to 24 transits a day by November 2023, causing long queues at nearby ports as ships wait their turn to pass. If the restrictions remain in place through 2024, there could be up to 4,000 fewer ships—with cargo ranging from children’s toys, to solar panel components, to life-saving insulin—passing the canal in 2024. Delay and disruption along shipping routes will only become a more common occurrence in a warmer world. These 7 graphics show how drought threatens serious disruptions to the global supply chain.
Panama is currently suffering a prolonged drought that began in early 2023 and has not let up. In October, rainfall was 43% lower than average levels, making it the driest October since the 1950s. For the area around the canal, 2023 was one of the driest two years since record keeping began in the country.
Panama’s severe drought is being exacerbated by the double-whammy of a strong El Niño and record-breaking global warming— exceeding the pre-industrial temperature average by 1.35 C. El Niño is a natural climate fluctuation that brings warmer-than-average air and ocean waters to the West coast of the Americas. That influx of warmth can vary in strength and last between nine and twelve months, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts it will continue into at least April of 2024.
The severity of El Niño fluctuations is linked to climate change. Climate modeling shows swings between El niño and its counterpart La niña have been growing more extreme, resulting in the more frequent and intense events seen in the past few decades Under high emission scenarios, in which we don’t get warming in check, El Niño events could become 15-20% stronger.
The drought has had a particularly profound effect on the man-made Gatún Lake, which holds the water supply that operates the Panama Canal. On January 1, 2024 water levels in Gatún Lake were lower than in any other January on record, almost 6 ft lower than January 1, 2023. Millions of gallons of water from Gatún, along with other regional lakes, are used to fill the locks that raise ships above sea level for the passage over Panama’s terrain. Insufficient water supply jeopardizes ship passage
Not only does Gatún Lake feed the locks that power the Canal, it also supplies drinking water to millions of residents in the central region of the country, including two major cities: Panama City and Colón. As both Panama’s population and the scale of global shipping has grown, there has been greater demand on the lake for freshwater.
In response to dropping water levels, Panama Canal Authorities have been forced to institute restrictions on ship passages. Ship transits are currently limited to 24 per day until April of 2024, when the authorities will re-evaluate at the start of the rainy season. The number of ship passages was 30% lower than usual by the end of 2023. The unreliability of transit through Panama has already prompted some ships to re-route.
Lower water levels also restrict the size of ships that can pass through the canal, as larger, heavier vessels sit lower in the water, putting them at higher risk of running aground in shallower waters. Large ships also require more lake water to lift them in the locks. As global shipping volume has grown, many shipping fleets have, too— relying on massive vessels that can carry more goods, but are harder to navigate through shallow waterways like the Panama Canal.
The Panama Canal accounts for 5% of global shipping, so disruptions here affect the worldwide supply chain, resulting in delayed shipments, more fuel usage, and GDP losses.
The impacts of shipping disruptions in the Panama Canal are also being compounded by political events in the Red Sea. The Suez Canal, an alternative route for ships bound between Europe and Asia, has also had shipping disrupted by attacks from the Houthis, a Yemeni military group targeting Israel-bound ships. With both the Panama and Suez Canals becoming less reliable routes, more ships will be forced to take the long way around— traveling down to the southern points of Africa and South America.
Far to the north, another waterway is being rapidly altered by climate change. As the Arctic warms faster than any other place on the planet, summer sea ice has been disappearing at a rate of almost 13% per decade. This has opened up new lanes of ice-free water that some countries are eying as potential new routes. But navigating through a melting Arctic is still dangerous, and the majority of new ship traffic in the Arctic is comprised of smaller military or fishing boats, rather than the large shipping vessels used to carry commercial cargo.
Furthermore, increased ship traffic in the Arctic has the potential to further emissions, as melting ice could open up access to new sources of oil and natural gas— perpetuating climate warming.
Though December rains saved Panama Canal officials from instituting further restrictions on ship passage, the region is still experiencing El Niño, and sea surface temperatures in early 2024 have continued to climb higher than 2023. Each day in 2024 has recorded the highest temperatures on record for that calendar date. The only path to stabilizing global shipping lies in stabilizing the global climate.
Dirt, it turns out, isn’t just worm poop. It’s also a humongous receptacle of carbon, some 2.5 trillion tons of it — three times more than all the carbon in the atmosphere.
That’s why if you ask a climate wonk about the U.S. farm bill — the broad, trillion-dollar spending package Congress is supposed to pass this year (after failing to do so last year) — they’ll probably tell you something about the stuff beneath your feet. The bill to fund agricultural and food programs could put a dent in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, some environmental advocates say, if it does one thing in particular: Help farmers store carbon in their soil.
The problem is, no one really knows how much carbon farmers can store in their soil.
It was when you became sick that I truly realized how much you mean to me. How long I have loved you, needed you, learned from you. My entire life I have tried to be self sufficient, but now I realize how dependent I am, and always have been, on you.
It is funny to think that I have known you my entire life. Even though I spent most of my earlier years with your cousin Big Blue, I recall seeing you from afar. You were always drifting by our house each day to visit the cranberry bogs. You ran alongside the trails that I walked with the dogs. They swam with you afterwards to cool off, but I never joined. You always seemed busy, hosting pool parties with the swans and snapping turtles. I did not think much of you then. Honestly you were a little too intimidating for my younger self.
Read more on Science on the Fly.
Six months ago, Woodwell Climate Research Center received a $5 million grant from Google.org to put advanced computing to work to track permafrost thaw in near-real time. Now, the Permafrost Discovery Gateway (PDG) project has begun convening experts in remote sensing, machine learning, process modeling, artificial intelligence, software engineering, design, and computing to build upon the existing PDG platform and create a resource hub for Arctic landscape data.
The Arctic is warming fast— up to four times faster than the global average— and as a result, the ground upon which many Northern communities are built has begun to thaw. 3.3 million Arctic residents live in settlements where models suggest permafrost could degrade and ultimately disappear by 2050, presenting an urgent need for accurate and reliable information to inform community adaptation and preparedness.
PDG was designed to use remote sensing data to identify and map permafrost-related hazards, like erosion and abrupt thaw events. Previously generated data on these features had either been coarse resolution or spanned only small areas within the Arctic. Collaborators on PDG from nine organizations improved and expanded on available data, mapping over a billion ice-wedge features across the Arctic landscape. Now, with the new Google.org funding, the team has goals to develop additional datasets, and make the resource accessible for communities.
“I feel like we have a pretty good grasp of how the PDG can help researchers working on permafrost-related topics, both in creating and in doing their science,” says Dr. Anna Liljedahl, Woodwell Associate Scientist and PDG project lead. “Now it’s time to dive deeper into the needs of the public— specifically, people living and working in the Arctic and that are dealing with ice-rich permafrost thaw hazards.”
As part of the award, Woodwell Climate also received the support of 15 Google.org Fellows— talented software engineers, user-interface designers, and product managers— most of whom are dedicated full-time to the project between January and June of 2024. The fellows’ expertise will bolster the project’s activities gathering geospatial data, refining machine learning models to detect permafrost thaw features, and designing the platform’s user interface to meet the needs of communities and decision makers.
“The Fellow support from Google.org is an award in itself,” says Dr. Liljedahl. “In addition to all the skills the Fellows bring, we’ll have a large team of people who will work full-time on just this project, which is very rare in academia. So this fellowship is a huge boost to the project, and also an opportunity for the Fellows to gain and grow from the collaboration.”
To inform this new phase of work, the PDG team hosted a workshop in November, 2023. The event convened developers of the PDG and end-users including GIS consultants, permafrost and road engineers for a conversation about what data and tools are needed to support communities affected by permafrost thaw.
The workshop highlighted basic information needs for the project— the value of detailed datasets that show the expanse of ice-rich permafrost, alongside the importance of including land ownership information and detailed descriptions of each dataset to provide a more complete understanding of the data. For Dr. Liljedahl, these insights were invaluable.
“We have mapped a billion ice-wedge polygons across the entire Arctic, but we have no map of Alaska trails, which are such an important infrastructure for Alaska’s communities as most are located off the road system. This kind of information will help us build a platform capable of serving community needs,” said Dr. Liljedahl.
Starting February 15, PDG will host a public webinar series that will continue the dialogue started in the workshop and hopefully inform not only this project, but data science research in other fields as well.
“This project addresses a need that goes beyond just permafrost— the need for accessible, public, geospatial data,” says Dr. Liljedahl. “And the need for a dedicated community to work on these difficult issues.”
Temperatures across the United States this winter have been on a roller coaster.
Average December temperatures in Minnesota, for example, were 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual, but the following month, they plummeted below the 30-year average before swinging back up to break an all-time high on January 31, hitting a balmy 55 degrees—nine degrees above the previous daily record. Parts of Montana saw a 90 to 100-degree temperature swing in the span of a month.
Two Woods Hole scientists have been appointed to state and federal climate advisories. These advisories will begin meeting in February to provide science-based guidance to government decision-makers.
In December, Falmouth resident and Arctic ecologist Susan M. Natali was appointed to the new federal Advisory Council for Climate Adaptation Science by Secretary of the Interior Debra A. Haaland. Dr. Natali works at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, where she leads a project called Permafrost Pathways that addresses the impacts of permafrost thaw in the Arctic.
Sarah B. Das is a glaciologist and climate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she has worked for over 20 years. She studies polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which have been rapidly melting over the last several years. In January, Dr. Das was appointed to the Massachusetts Office of Climate Science’s new Climate Science Advisory Panel.
As part of a new partnership between Permafrost Pathways and the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry (ICR), the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School (Arctic Initiative) and Woodwell Climate Research Center (Woodwell Climate) hosted 18 Indigenous youth from across the circumpolar North for a day of science, mapping, storytelling, and policy programming. Woodwell Climate Senior Scientist and Permafrost Pathways Lead Dr. Sue Natali signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ICR Executive Director Anders Oskal and Woodwell Climate President Dr. Max Holmes establishing a new relationship focused on climate change and Arctic resilience.
Read more on Permafrost Pathways.