With the Arctic warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world, permafrost thaw has become a significant climate threat. Scientists estimate that permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but with recent and projected thaw, the organic matter in permafrost is breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
Addressing this issue requires extensive data collection on permafrost emissions, as well as equitable strategies for adaptation by Arctic communities. To tackle this issue, Woodwell has partnered with the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, the Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Alaska Native Science Commission to connect experts in climate science, human rights, and public policy with frontline communities and high-level decision makers. The partnership is pioneering a six-year research program called Permafrost Pathways that will develop action plans to address the compounding impacts of permafrost thaw.
With the understanding that this needs to be a sustainable process with long-term impact, Permafrost Pathways’ scientists are expanding and coordinating a pan-Arctic carbon monitoring network to improve the accuracy of permafrost thaw emissions estimates. More precise measurements will fill critical data gaps and reduce uncertainties, so that permafrost emissions can be factored into global carbon budgets, climate models, targets, and measures for mitigation and adaptation. That, combined with high-resolution satellite and aircraft-based observations and advanced computer modeling, will allow for tracking the changing landscape in near real-time and more accurately projecting future emissions.
Permafrost Pathways is also collaborating with local communities to co-create Indigenous-led adaptation strategies. For many, relocation or infrastructure upgrades are needed urgently, but there is currently no process or resources to enable communities to move forward. With Arctic residents already feeling the brunt of climate change, the involvement of frontline communities is crucial in developing successful adaptation plans and effective policies.
Despite its big strides, Permafrost Pathways is still in its infancy and there is a long road ahead when it comes to tackling the complexity of permafrost thaw. Today, at least 192 countries, plus the European Union, have signed on to the Paris Agreement’s promise of reducing emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees C. But many emissions reduction goals do not include carbon released by permafrost thaw. The international community needs to take strong action to change this or else permafrost thaw could undermine climate goals.
In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report, permafrost thaw was named as an issue that should be included in carbon budgets and global reduction schedules, but often isn’t because there is not enough data on its climate impact. Continued support of data gathering programs like Permafrost Pathways will provide the international community, top country-level climate negotiators, and environmental ministers the knowledge needed to fix that oversight and start filling gaps.
In Arctic communities, permafrost thaw is already causing disasters like flooding, coastal erosion, and infrastructure damage. To combat this, national and international policy makers need to act now to integrate permafrost thaw into disaster policies and community-led adaptation frameworks. This will create clear planning and response procedures for future permafrost-related issues.
Permafrost thaw is an issue that affects everyone. Understanding the local and global implications and sharing that information within immediate social circles as well as on social media platforms can help start conversations that spur action. The public also has the power to influence the development of climate policies by pressuring elected officials to tackle this serious issue.>
A 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that the Earth is on track to warm 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040. Warming beyond this will cause global issues like struggling coral reefs, catastrophic storms, and extreme heat waves. The international community has developed a global carbon budget that tracks how much carbon can be added to the atmosphere by human-caused emissions before we push warming past 1.5 and even 2 degrees. It functions much like a household budget— where spending more than you earn can jeopardize your stability and comfort.
With the carbon budget, that means balancing how much carbon is released into the atmosphere with how much is being stored by natural sinks. According to the IPCC, the world needs to wean itself off of “spending” down that budget as we rapidly approach 2 degrees of warming.
But IPCC’s budget calculations aren’t factoring in a major source of emissions—permafrost thaw. Massive amounts of carbon are stored in frozen Arctic soils known as permafrost. As permafrost thaws, that carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists estimate that emissions from permafrost thaw will range from 30 to 150 billion tons this century.
Despite being on par with top-emitting countries like India or the United States, permafrost thaw is not included in the global carbon budget. It has historically been excluded because of gaps in data that make existing estimates of emissions less precise. Dr. Max Holmes, President of Woodwell Climate Research Center, says it’s “especially alarming… that permafrost carbon is largely ignored in current climate change models.” That’s because permafrost thaw emissions could take up 25-40% of our remaining emissions budgeted to cap warming at 2°C. Imagine leaving the cost of rent out of your household budget. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it, it just means you won’t be prepared when that bill arrives.
Excluding permafrost thaw also means that projections of the rate of warming will be off. The unaccounted carbon will speed up warming, reducing the amount of time we have to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Permafrost thaw is already negatively impacting Arctic residents, especially Indigenous communities. In 2019, a Yup’ik community that has lived in Newtok, Alaska for hundreds of years had to begin moving to higher, volcanic ground because the thawing permafrost under their town was causing disastrous floods and sinking infrastructure. Woodwell Arctic program director and senior scientist, Dr. Sue Natali, who studies permafrost thaw in Yup’ik territory, says “it’s a place where permafrost is on the brink of thawing, and will be thawed by the end of the century, if not much sooner.”
Since permafrost spans multiple countries, it has been difficult to determine who should take responsibility for it. Consequently, there is currently little government framework for adaptation. The Yup’ik people had to reach out to a variety of government agencies and lived without plumbing for decades before the federal government finally awarded them support for relocation. The community paid a heavy price for it, though. Without proper policy in place to manage climate relocation, they had to bargain for government assistance, and in the end, turned ownership of the land they were leaving over to the U.S. government.
It took sixteen years from when Congress agreed to assist the Yup’ik community to when their promises were put into action. While scientists, like the ones spearheading Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways program, are monitoring and modeling thaw to better prepare people for the damage it can cause, vulnerable communities do not have sixteen years to wait for assistance and relocation.
If permafrost thaw continues to be overlooked by government agencies, then it will remain difficult to prevent the Earth from warming beyond 2ºC and to support frontline communities most affected by it. Tackling permafrost thaw for both Arctic communities and the planet will require a coordinated international effort.
Looking for some background on Permafrost? Read the first piece in our permafrost series: “What is Permafrost?” To learn about what must be done to combat this issue, read part three: “What can be done about permafrost thaw?”
Thinking about climate change usually brings to mind dramatically melting ice caps and rising sea levels, but there’s another threat that’s caught the attention of climate scientists for its potential to be equally as disastrous—thawing permafrost.
Located anywhere between a few centimeters to 4,900ft below the Earth’s surface, permafrost is soil composed of sand, gravel, organic matter, and ice that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. Some has been frozen for centuries or even millenia, and it’s this ancient permafrost in the Arctic that holds the greatest significance for climate change.
Arctic permafrost stretches across Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, and Canada, and can be found beneath the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic tundra, alpine forests, and boreal forests. It covers 15% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and 3.6 million people live atop it. Scientists estimate that Arctic permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but when it thaws, soil microbes break down the organic matter in permafrost and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
In many places, forests, plants, and peat act as protective insulation for Arctic permafrost. This insulation helps keep carbon-storing organic matter, like plants and animals, as well as bacteria and archaea, frozen in the permafrost. However, climate change is already causing the Arctic to warm three to four times faster than the rest of the planet.
In addition to rapid warming speeding decay, it also strips back permafrost’s protective layers with increasing fires and heavy summer rains that burn and erode away top soil layers, further accelerating thaw. In some places, permafrost thaws so abruptly that the ground can collapse. Developing infrastructure that requires deforestation and underground pipes further exposes permafrost to warming. Additionally, as sea ice melts, coastal Arctic permafrost is exposed to warmer waters. The combined result is extensive permafrost thaw across the region.
Researchers have been studying permafrost thaw to determine the size of the threat it poses. Methods such as placing soil moisture sensors in strategic locations and examining soil cores collected by drilling holes into the soil to document the different layers of permafrost help gauge the rate and extent of thaw.
In a recent TEDTalk, Dr. Sue Natali, Woodwell’s Arctic program director and senior scientist, cautioned that, “By the end of this century, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost may be on par with some of the world’s leading greenhouse-gas-emitting nations.”
There are already visible signs of vast permafrost thaw in the Arctic. Since ice is an essential part of the ground’s structural integrity, the soil becomes unstable when it thaws. This leads to dangerous situations like landslides, sinkholes, and destabilized infrastructure that threaten millions of people. Remote communities are particularly impacted, losing access to roads and sources of freshwater.
For both the carbon it threatens to release, and the destabilizing impacts it has on Arctic residents, permafrost thaw is a serious threat. One that, as the Arctic continues to warm, demands urgent attention and remediation.
Until now, that attention has been slow in coming. Read about why combatting permafrost thaw is such a complex issue in part two of our Permafrost series: “The critical missing expense in global climate budgets.”
A sudden flip in weather conditions—from a long hot and dry period to a parade of storms, for example, or from abnormally mild winter temperatures to extreme cold—can cause major disruptions to human activities, energy supplies, agriculture, and ecosystems. These shifts, dubbed “weather whiplash” events, are challenging to measure and define because of a lack of consistent definition. A new study demonstrates an approach to measuring the frequency of these events based on rapid changes in continent-wide weather regimes.
The study indicates that, while the frequency of whiplash events in recent decades has not changed substantially, future model projections indicate increases will occur as the globe continues to warm under a thicker blanket of greenhouse gasses. In particular, the researchers find whiplash will increase most during times when the Arctic is abnormally warm, and decrease when the Arctic is in a cold regime—something that will occur less often as the planet warms.
Examples of weather whiplash during 2022 so far include a long, hot, drought in western U.S. states during early summer that was broken by record-breaking flash flooding; exceptionally wet and cool conditions during June in the Pacific Northwest replaced by a heat wave in July; a record-warm early winter for most south-central states followed by a cooler-than-average January and February; and a spell of 67 consecutive hot, dry days in Dallas, TX, broken by the heaviest rains in a century.
“The spring and summer of 2022 have been plagued by weather whiplash events,” said lead author, Dr. Jennifer Francis, Senior Scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “A warming planet increases the likelihood of longer, more intense droughts and heat waves, and we’re also seeing these spells broken suddenly by heavy bouts of precipitation, which are also fueled by the climate crisis. These sudden shifts are highly disruptive to all sorts of human activities and wildlife, and our study indicates they’ll occur more frequently as we continue to burn fossil fuels and clear-cut forests, causing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise further.”
Co-author Judah Cohen, Principal Scientist at Verisk AER noted that these phenomena are tightly linked to regional warming in the Arctic.
“We know the Arctic region is experiencing the most rapid changes in the global climate system. Evidence is growing that these profound changes are contributing to more extreme weather events outside the Arctic, and this influence will only increase in the future,” said Dr. Cohen.
One point five—most readers will recognize that number as the generally accepted upper limit of permissible climate warming. With current temperatures already hovering at 1.1 degrees Celsius above the historical average, the race is on to hit that target, and the likelihood that we will surpass it is growing. Even if we do manage a 1.5 degree future, that’s still warmer than today’s world, which is already seeing devastating climate impacts.
So what will it actually feel like to live in a 1.5 degree world—or a 2 degree one, or even 3? The Probable Futures initiative has built a tool to help everyone imagine.
Probable Futures is a newly launched climate literacy initiative with the goal of reframing the way society thinks about climate change. The initiative was founded by Dr. Spencer Glendon, a senior fellow with Woodwell Climate who, after investigating climate change as Director of Research at Wellington Management, noticed a gap in need of bridging between climate scientists and, well… everyone else.
According to Dr. Glendon, although there was an abundance of available climate science, it wasn’t necessarily accessible to the people who needed to use it. The way scientists spoke about climate impacts didn’t connect with the way most businesses, governments, and communities thought about their operations. There was no easy way for individuals to pose questions of climate science and explore what the answers might mean for them.
In short, the public didn’t know what questions to ask and the technical world of climate modeling wasn’t really inviting audience participation. But it desperately needed to. Because tackling climate change requires everyone’s participation.
“The idea that climate change is somebody else’s job needs to go away,” Dr. Glendon says. “It isn’t anybody else’s job. It’s everybody’s job.”
So, working with scientists and communicators from Woodwell, Dr. Glendon devised Probable Futures—a website that would offer tools and resources to help the public understand climate change in a way that makes it meaningful to everybody. The site employs well-established models to map changing temperatures, precipitation levels, and drought through escalating potential warming scenarios. The data is coupled with accessible content on the fundamentals of climate science and examples of it playing out in today’s world.
According to the initiative’s Executive Director, Alison Smart, Probable Futures is designed to give individuals a gateway into climate science.
“No matter where one might be on their journey to understand climate change, we hope Probable Futures can serve as a trusted resource. This is where you can come to understand the big picture context and the physical limits of our planet, how those systems work, and how they will change as the planet warms,” Smart says.
As the world awakens to the issue of climate change, there is a growing group of individuals who will need to better understand its impacts. Supply chain managers, for example, who are now tasked with figuring out how to get their companies to zero emissions. Or parents, trying to understand how to prepare their kids for the future. Probable Futures provides the tools and encouragement to help anyone ask good questions about climate science.
To that end, the site leans on storytelling that encourages visitors to imagine their lives in the context of a changing world. The maps display forecasts for 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 degrees of warming—our most probable futures, with nearly 3 degrees likely by the end of the century on our current trajectory. For the warming we have already surpassed, place-based stories of vulnerable human systems, threatened infrastructure, and disruptions to the natural world, give some sense of the impacts society is already feeling.
According to Isabelle Runde, a Research Assistant with Woodwell’s Risk Program who helped develop the maps and data visualizations for the Probable Futures site, encouraging imagination is what sets the initiative apart from other forms of climate communication.
“The imagination piece has been missing in communication between the scientific community and the broader public,” Runde says. “Probable Futures provides the framework for people to learn about climate change and enter that place [of imagination], while making it more personal.”
Glendon believes that good storytelling in science communication can have the same kind of impact as well-imagined speculative fiction, which has a history of providing glimpses of the future for society to react against. Glendon uses the example of George Orwell who, by imagining unsettling yet possible worlds, influenced debates around policy and culture for decades. The same could be true for climate communication.
“I’m not sure we need more science fiction about other worlds,” Glendon says. “We need fiction about the future of this world. We need an imaginative application of what we know.” Glendon hopes that the factual information on Probable Futures will spark speculative imaginings that could help push society away from a future we don’t want to see.
For Smart, imagining the future doesn’t mean only painting a picture of how the world could change for the worse. It can also mean sketching out the ways in which humans will react to and shape our new surroundings for the better.
“We acknowledge that there are constraints to how we can live on this planet, and imagining how we live within those constraints can be a really exciting thing,” Smart says. “We may find more community in those worlds. We may find less consumption but more satisfaction in those worlds. We may find more connection to human beings on the other side of the planet. And that’s what makes me the most hopeful.”
A new analysis from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office finds that pending infrastructure and budget bills would put the U.S. on track to hit the Biden administration’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions over the next decade. That’s good news. But what if we’re aiming for the wrong target?
There’s a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that could derail international efforts to limit climate change, yet most people have never heard of it. It isn’t included in most climate models, nor in the calculations of how quickly we need to curtail fossil fuel emissions. It’s called permafrost, and its carbon footprint this century could be on par with unchecked emissions by the likes of Japan, India, the U.S., or even more than all these nations. Excluding such a player from international calculations and negotiations would be unthinkable. And yet, that is precisely what we’ve been doing with permafrost emissions.
Permafrost is long-frozen soil that has stockpiled immense amounts of carbon over thousands of years. It covers an area almost twice the size of the United States and holds twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. As the Arctic warms (something it is doing at three times the rate of the rest of the globe). permafrost is thawing—sometimes abruptly and dramatically—and beginning to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As in other parts of the world, Arctic wildfires are increasing in size and intensity, releasing yet more greenhouse gases and thawing more permafrost. The warmer it gets, the more carbon is emitted. And because those greenhouse gases drive even more warming, it can set off a vicious cycle of self-propelled warming.