Taking a core sample near the Kwethluk River in Alaska.
photo by John Land Le Coq
Frozen Arctic soil, or permafrost, stores a vast amount of carbon—double what is currently in the atmosphere. Thawing threatens to release that carbon and set off a vicious cycle of amplified global warming. But the magnitude of the risk is uncertain. We need more information.
Woodwell Climate Research Center is developing a comprehensive system for monitoring and projecting carbon emissions from Arctic permafrost and wildfire. Through a partnership with the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, we are working to ensure these carbon emissions are considered in international climate policy.
As the Earth warms, permafrost thaws, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These emissions, much like burning fossil fuels, contribute to global warming.
The fate of permafrost will have a huge impact on our future climate, but because scientists do not know exactly how much carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide will be released, permafrost emissions are often excluded from climate models.
Above: An aerial view of the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta area where Woodwell scientists frequently conduct research.
A key goal of the project is to ensure Arctic permafrost and wildfire carbon emissions are taken into account in the 2023 “global stock take” called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Our partnership with The Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center leverages Woodwell Climate’s leadership in Arctic ecosystems research and The Arctic Initiative’s broad network and deep policy expertise.
The major emitter that’s missing from climate negotiations The Hill, August 30, 2021
How much worse will thawing Arctic permafrost make climate change? Scientific American, August 11, 2021
Arctic fires, thawing permafrost pose growing threat to climate – study Reuters, May 17, 2021
Mysteries of massive holes forming in Siberian permafrost unlocked by scientists CNN, February 17, 2021
Massive Craters in Siberia Are Exploding Into Existence. What’s Causing Them? Discover Magazine, January 27, 2021
Climate Change is Turning Arctic’s Carbon Sinks into Carbon Emitters Newsweek, October 23, 2019
Record-Level Ground Collapse In The Alaskan Tundra WCAI, July 29, 2019
The poisons being released by melting Arctic ice BBC News, June 17, 2019
Some Arctic ground no longer freezing—even in winter National Geographic, August 20, 2018
Alaska’s thawing permafrost puts huge portions of state’s foundation at risk CBS News, October 19, 2017
Alaska’s Permafrost is Thawing New York Times, August 23, 2017
Lightning is sparking more wildfires in the north as climate change causes more frequent storms, study warns The Daily Mail (UK), June 26, 2017
Forest Fires Can Heat Up the Whole Planet National Geographic, June 23, 2016
Arctic Program Director & Senior Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center
Associate Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center
Co-Director of Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Senior Advisor to the President, Woodwell Climate Research Center
Director of Foundation Relations