Online permafrost course launches new Woodwell partnership

Hands holding and poking a small, circular disk of frozen permafrost

Woodwell Climate Research Center has released its first course in partnership with FutureLearn, a UK-based global social education platform that delivers learning through online courses, partnering with more than 260 universities and brands. FutureLearn aims to transform access to education for their diverse network of over 17 million learners with courses that empower them to solve the world’s biggest challenges, and Woodwell will be developing additional future courses through the partnership that address other areas of our scientists’ expertise, such as forest carbon and risk assessment.

The newly released course, Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic, represents years of Woodwell scientists’ research and experience in permafrost regions. It features Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who also lead Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways project, as well as Woodwell’s Chief Communications Officer Dr. Heather Goldstone. Over the 4 weeks of the course, learners are introduced to advanced geology and climate science concepts relating to permafrost, translated into an accessible, go-at-your-own-pace experience.

“Permafrost thaw is an underappreciated problem, which unfortunately means that its impacts continue to be underestimated,” said Dr. Brendan Rogers. “While I’m excited for people to learn more about it through the course, my biggest hope is that all of those people will then share what they learned with someone else, and help expand the conversation.”

Offered free of charge on FutureLearn’s online platform, the course is designed for a broad audience, from policy influencers to business leaders, teachers, activists, and anyone interested in climate change.

“Unfortunately, climate change may not be a significant part of people’s formal education. But we all need to understand what’s going on,” said Woodwell Chief Communications Officer, Dr. Heather Goldstone. “With FutureLearn, we can share our insights and expertise with a large, diverse audience, delve into content more deeply than we ever could in a webinar, and provide a more interactive and flexible experience for learners.”

The course is open now for enrollment and on-demand learning, and Woodwell will be offering a facilitated session immediately after COP, with moderators available to answer learner questions.

What can be done about permafrost thaw?

Monitor, model, and make sure Arctic communities have the support they need

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.

What we’re doing

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.

What’s left to be done

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.

What you can do

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.>

 

For more information about the issues surrounding permafrost thaw, read part one and part two in our Permafrost series. To stay informed and get involved, visit the Permafrost Pathways site.

The critical missing expense in global climate budgets

A major emitter is being left out of the global climate budget, and Arctic communities are already feeling the impacts

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.

Permafrost is missing from the budget

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?”

What is permafrost?

Centuries-old frozen soil is under threat from rapid warming

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.”

It was supposed to be a quiet season, but only two months into summer and Alaska is already on track for another record-setting wildfire season. With 3 million acres already scorched and over 260 active fires, 2022 is settling in behind 2015 and 2004 so far as one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record. Here’s what to know about Alaska’s summer fires:

2. Historic fires are Burning in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay

Southwestern Alaska, in particular, has been suffering. The season kicked off with an unseasonably early fire near Kwethluk that started in April. Currently, the East Fork Fire, which is burning near the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, AK, is among the biggest tundra fires in Alaska’s history. Just above Bristol Bay, the Lime Complex— consisting of 18 individual fires— has burned through nearly 865,000 acres. One of the longest lasting fires in the Lime Complex, the Upper Talarik fire, is burning close to the site of the controversial open-pit Pebble Mine.

2. Seasonal predictions showed a low-fire season

For Dr. Brendan Rogers, who was in Fairbanks, AK for a research trip in May, the explosive start of the fire season contrasts strongly to conditions he saw in late spring.

“It was a relatively average spring in interior Alaska, with higher-than-normal snowpack. Walking around the forest was challenging because of remaining snow, slush, and flooded trails,” said Dr. Rogers.

Early predictions showed a 2022 season low in fire due to heavy winter snow. But the weather shifted in the last ten days of May and early June. June temperatures in Anchorage were the second highest ever recorded. High heat and low humidity rapidly dried out vegetation and groundcover, creating a tinderbox of available fuel. This sudden flip from wet to dry unfolded similarly to conditions in 2004, which resulted in the state’s worst fire season on record.

3. Climate Change is accelerating fire feedback loops

The conditions for this wildfire season were facilitated by climate change, and the emissions that result from them will fuel further warming. The hot temperatures responsible for drying out the Alaskan landscape were brought on by a persistent high pressure system that prevents the formation of clouds— a weather pattern linked to warming-related fluctuations in the jet stream

“With climate change, we tend to get more of these persistent ridges and troughs in the jet stream,” says Dr. Rogers. “This will cause a high pressure system like this one to just sit over an area. There is no rain; it dries everything out, warms everything up.” 

The compounding effects of earlier snowmelt and declining precipitation have also made it easier for ground cover to dry out rapidly under a spell of hot weather. More frequent fires also burn through ground cover protecting permafrost, accelerating thaw that releases more carbon. According to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the frequency of big fire seasons like this one are only increasing— a trend expected to continue apace with further climate change.

Additionally, this summer has been high in lightning strikes, which were linked to the ignition of most of the fires currently burning in Alaska. Higher temperatures result in more energy in the atmosphere, which increases the likelihood of lightning strikes. On just one day in July over 7,180 lightning strikes were reported in Alaska and neighboring portions of Canada.

4. Communities are Being Affected Hundreds of Miles Away

The destruction from these wildfires has forced rural and city residents alike to evacuate and escape the path of burning. Some residents of St. Mary’s, AK have elected to stay long enough to help combat the fires, clearing brush around structures and cutting trees that could spread fire to town buildings if they alight. 

But the impact of the fires is also being felt in towns not in the direct path of the flames. Smoke particulates at levels high enough to cause dangerously unhealthy air quality were carried as far north as Nome, AK on the Seward Peninsula.

“Even though a lot of these fires are remote, that doesn’t preclude direct human harm,” says Woodwell senior science policy advisor Dr. Peter Frumhoff.

Recent research has shown that combatting boreal forest fires, even remote ones, can be a cost effective way to prevent both these immediate health risks, as well as the dangers of ground subsidence, erosion, and loss of traditional ways of life posed by climate change in the region. 

5. The season is not over yet

Mid-July rains have begun to slow the progression of active fires but, according to Dr. Frumhoff, despite the lull, it is important to keep in mind that the season is not over yet.

“The uncertainty of those early predictions also applies to the remainder of the fire season — we don’t know how much more fire we’ll see in Alaska over the next several weeks.”

Woodwell launches new project monitoring, combatting the effects of permafrost thaw

A $41 Million grant through The Audacious Project will fund Permafrost Pathways work

collapsing slope near water in siberia due to permafrost thaw
It’s a big idea—a pan-Arctic monitoring network for permafrost emissions—but big ideas are exactly what The Audacious Project was created to foster.

This April, Woodwell Climate Research Center was awarded 41.2 million dollars through Audacious to not only build such a network, filling gaps in our understanding of how much carbon is released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost, but also to put research to work shaping policy and helping people.

The new project, called Permafrost Pathways, combines scientific prowess from Woodwell with policy, community engagement, and Indigenous knowledge from the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), and the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in global climate calculations. Thawing permafrost is expected to release between 30 and 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100, the higher estimates on par with or even exceeding the United States’ cumulative emissions if allowed to continue at current rates. Yet permafrost is not accounted for in carbon budgets and international agreements. Permafrost Pathways will develop more complete data on permafrost carbon and deliver that research into the hands of those poised to decide how we deal with the warming Arctic.

Big problems require big solutions

Permafrost Pathways is led on the Woodwell side by Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who have both been researching permafrost carbon for years. Dr. Natali found her way to the Arctic through a desire to work in a place significant to the global carbon story. The rapid changes she has witnessed in the past decade have underscored the Arctic as ground zero for climate change.

“I’ve seen dramatic changes from one year to the next in the places where I work, and Arctic residents have been observing these changes for decades,” Dr. Natali says. “You can measure something one year and then the ground there collapses the next. The physical changes across the landscape are really startling to see.”

Drs. Natali and Rogers have seen eroded hillslopes, research trips abandoned due to wildfire, community meetings with Arctic residents whose homes are sinking—every experience reinforced the fact that there was still much more to learn about how thawing permafrost feeds into climate change and is impacting Arctic communities.

The Audacious grant will allow Drs. Natali and Rogers to pull together the threads of their prior research into a project that starts to tackle the issue on a grander scale.

“When you’re focused on individual problems or hypotheses, you’re not able to really think big about something like monitoring across the Arctic,” says Dr. Rogers. “Opening up a funding source like this lets you think at a scale that matches the problems we face.”

The project is thinking really big, with the goal of installing 10 new eddy covariance towers—structures with instruments that measure carbon flux—in key areas where data is currently lacking. Pathways will also maintain existing key towers that would otherwise be decommissioned, and augment others to measure carbon fluxes year-round.

“There are a lot of existing towers that are either not running through the winter, or they’re not measuring methane, or they’re on hold for instrumentation upgrades or lack of funding,” Dr. Natali says. “We will get even more new data by maintaining old towers than constructing new ones.”

In parallel, Woodwell will work with a team at University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a novel permafrost model that fully harnesses the data, accounting for important but currently neglected processes, and ultimately delivers more accurate projections of permafrost emissions to inform policy makers and Arctic communities.

‘It’s an awful decision’

While the science team ramps up new data collection, AIJ will be breaking down the issue of adaptation. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and it is not waiting for exact measurements to make the consequences known.

The land upon which many Alaska Native communities are located is destabilizing in the face of usteq—a Yupik word for the catastrophic ground collapse that occurs when thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding combine to pull the ground out from under them. In many places the formerly solid cornerstones of villages—houses, roads, airports, cemeteries— have had to be picked up and moved to more stable ground.

“It is an awful, awful decision that communities are being faced with because the land on which they’re living is becoming uninhabitable,” says Executive Director of AIJ, Dr. Robin Bronen.

On top of the trauma of watching their villages sink into the Earth, there is no clear path for Arctic communities deciding they must completely relocate.

“It’s become painfully clear that we in the United States have no institutional or governance structure to facilitate this type of movement of people,” says Dr. Bronen. There is no standardized way for people displaced by the climate crisis seeking resettlement to apply for funding and technical assistance for a community-wide relocation.

“If policy changes aren’t made nationally, then a lot of communities in the United States are going to be experiencing this incredible disconnect between making the decision that they are ready to leave, but having no resources to implement that decision,” says Dr. Bronen.

Permafrost Pathways will be working with Arctic residents to help them adapt to their rapidly shifting landscape. Through AIJ and the Alaska Native Science Commission, the project will connect with communities, collaborate to generate data they can use in their decision making and, if they make the choice to move, work with them to secure the resources needed for relocation.

Factoring Permafrost Thaw into our Global Future

Permafrost Pathways isn’t the first to tackle these issues but, Dr. Natali says, it does represent a unique combination of expertise that could push forward both carbon mitigation and climate adaptation policies.

Leader of the Arctic Initiative, professor, and Senior Advisor to Woodwell’s president, Dr. John Holdren understands the value of connections in making lasting change; he has been speaking to top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad for much of his career.

“All of us at the Belfer Center have been linking science and policy for a long time and communication is important to that,” says Dr. Holdren. “In my view, it’s going to remain important to have personal connections at high levels.”

Working through these connections, Permafrost Pathways will put the project’s science into the hands of policymakers to impress upon them the issue’s urgency.

“All the news coming out about permafrost carbon has been bad news,” says Dr. Holdren. “I think what we are going to find is that the high estimates are much more likely to be right than the low estimates. We’ve got to get that factored into the policy process.”

For Dr. Natali, the most important outcome of Permafrost Pathways is a future in which the threats presented by permafrost thaw are taken seriously by governments.

“I want to see permafrost thaw emissions accounted for,” says Dr. Natali. “I want to see the national and international community actually wrestle with the effects of permafrost thaw and to take action to respond to the climate hazards.”

Dr. Rogers says he hopes the collaborative nature of this already-big project will have even larger, rippling effects— paving the way for new partnerships and policy change.

“There’s the critical work that we will be doing, and then there are the new doors that a project of this scope opens,” says Dr. Rogers. “And we aren’t reaching our end goal without those open doors.”

The Audacious Project is an initiative of the non-profit TED that funds large-scale solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Every year, the Project selects a cohort of big ideas to nurture with funding and resources.

Tune in to PBS NOVA on February 2 to watch Arctic Sinkholes, an original documentary that explores the hidden dynamics of thawing permafrost and the emissions it releases. The documentary features Woodwell Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, alongside other prominent climate scientists working to better understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic. 

The film centers on the 2014 discovery of methane craters in the Arctic. These features of the landscape are formed as permafrost thaws, and trapped greenhouse gasses expand, pushing the soil up. When the pressure becomes too great, these bubbles of earth can  explode suddenly, creating massive craters on the Arctic landscape and releasing a burst of atmosphere-warming gasses. 

“There’s a lot of discussion about carbon dioxide and its relationship to climate, but the impact of

methane coming out of the Arctic is potentially enormous,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “Making accurate predictions about the future depends on good data, and Arctic Sinkholes reveals what scientists have to do to get that data, as they try to measure an invisible, odorless gas that’s underground in some of the most remote and challenging environments in the world.”

To better understand the extent and significance of these craters, Dr. Natali and Woodwell Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske, devised a method of mining satellite imagery data for key characteristics that would indicate a recent explosion. A sudden shift from vegetation to water, for example — often, craters quickly fill up with rain, becoming lakes that obscure their own origins.

Outgassing from the craters themselves represents only a small subset of the larger potential emissions from permafrost thaw. Current estimates show that thawing permafrost could contribute as much to warming this century as continued annual emissions from the United States. 

Methane craters make evident the speed at which the Arctic is warming, and the changes permafrost thaw is causing on the landscape. In their research, Dr. Natali and Fiske uncovered other impacts of permafrost thaw— slumping ground, sinkholes, and coastal erosion are destabilizing the ground on which many Arctic communities are built. 

“These abrupt changes that are occurring in this once-frozen ground are happening faster than we expected,” said Dr. Natali. “And that is not only going to accelerate warming, but also affect the lives of millions who make their home in the Arctic.”

Future research will work towards more precise estimates of permafrost thaw emissions and a better understanding of the changing Arctic.

Arctic Sinkholes premieres Wednesday, February 2, 2022 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and on the PBS video app.

Arctic communities and infrastructure under threat from thawing permafrost

Leaning fire hydrant from subsiding ground illustrating hazards of permafrost thaw
The Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the globe in the last two decades. In this region where the ground in some places is literally made of ice, rapid warming poses a serious threat to the lives, livelihoods and infrastructure of Arctic communities. A new review led by Dr. Gabriel Wolken from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Woodwell Associate Scientist Dr. Anna Liljedahl details the biggest hazards that could result—and in some cases already have—from permafrost and glacial thaw.

The paper was released as a special addition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card, an annual report on the status of the Arctic region. In it, the authors outline what we know, and the much larger gaps in our knowledge, about how thawing permafrost and melting glaciers are impacting Arctic communities.

Ice holds the Arctic together. An estimated 23 million square miles of land in the Northern hemisphere is permafrost, soil that traditionally stayed frozen solid year-round. When it begins to thaw, the land slumps, which can cause sinkholes, erosions, and landslides. Retreating glaciers can also destabilize mountain slopes. When collapsing glaciers or mountainsides fall into a nearby water body, they can set off a chain of cascading hazards, including outburst floods, debris flow, and even tsunamis.

Events like these have already been documented, with serious impacts on Arctic residents, yet research and monitoring of these hazards have been lacking.

“Houses are already collapsing, communities are already being impacted by permafrost thaw and having to adapt, including in some cases, to relocate. That’s been happening for a decade, at least, and it’s not getting the attention it should be,” says Woodwell Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali, who also contributed to the Report Card.

And there is vast potential for unstable Arctic ground to have far-reaching global impacts. The collapse of an oil tank in Norilsk, Russia was partly attributed to the extremely warm conditions of 2020. Roads, pipelines, and shipping lanes are all at risk from thaw-related hazards.

“It’s not only affecting someone living near a glacier or on permafrost, it also extends farther than that,” Dr. Liljedahl says. “It includes national security. And we do not have broad-scale hazard identification and detection across the Arctic, or near real-time tracking of permafrost thaw and unstable slopes. We can do a lot more in utilizing the vast amounts of remote sensing imagery and observations made by people living in permafrost and glacier-affected landscapes.”

What’s desperately needed, Dr. Liljedahl says, are early warning systems that can alert residents of imminent threats, especially ones designed in tandem with the communities being affected. But, without more research and widespread monitoring of permafrost and unstable slopes, building such a  system would be nearly impossible—akin to taking precautions against a volcanic eruption without knowing where the volcano is.

The behavior and rate of thaw is also likely to change as climate change progresses. Permafrost itself releases emissions when it thaws and that accelerates the warming process, increasing the urgency for the necessary systems to be put into place.

“The rate of hazard formation and the combined effects of these hazards is much higher than it has been in the past, which will make it more challenging to respond to without accelerated efforts to monitor and map these hazards, and develop cohesive response plans,” says Dr. Natali.