For the second year in a row, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) scientists (April 2022) report a record annual increase in atmospheric levels of methane during 2021 as 17 parts per billion (ppb) since measures began in 1983. Carbon dioxide has also increased with historically high rates of 414.7 parts per million (ppm) during 2021, the fastest sustained rate of increase in the 63 years since monitoring began. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work to reverse these trends, and clearly that’s not happening,” says Ariel Stein, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. “So, it is crucial we continue to sustain integrated and robust monitoring and verification systems to help assess the current state of the atmospheric greenhouse gas burden, as well as determine the effectiveness of future emission reduction measures.”
An increasing amount of literature recently communicates the complexity and irreversible results of several aspects of melting permafrost generating emissions. Permafrost, a huge reservoir of organic carbon has been thawing for centuries but is now accelerating, given human-induced warming on the planet releasing large amounts of CO2, mercury, and other heavy metals into the atmosphere previously frozen. Once-stable land is collapsing. Changing the landscape’s surface through the melting of ground ice affects ground strength, roads, pipelines, powerlines, and buildings and is dramatically creating ‘carbon-cycle feedback loops. Feedbacks occur when a change in one part of a system causes a sequence of changes that reinforces the original change and leads to more warming and CO2 and methane released into the atmosphere from the melts.
John Holdren, former science adviser to President Obama and current co-director of the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School states in a recent Physics Today article that “because so little is known about permafrost thawing, it has largely been omitted from the global climate models that underpin the already-dire climate-warming forecasts of the IPCC.”
For Canada, the greatest concern for measurement is in the Arctic. The Cascade Institute, a BC research centre, reveals the Arctic is warming at more than twice the global average. This warming along with resulting wildfires is accelerating the thaw of the North’s permafrost – zones of perennially frozen soil, sediment, and peat. This thaw matters as Canada is a permafrost nation. Nearly half of Canada’s land mass lies above permafrost, therefore, thawing is impacting Indigenous communities, infrastructure, and resource extraction.
As ice disappears, development particularly in mining and oil and gas expands subject to the risk of oil spills, increased pollution, and invasive species moving in. Yale University recently stated scientists suspect some of the collapsing permafrost may give new life to pathogens capable of killing wildlife as warmer temperatures nudge the organisms out of their dormant state.
Steve Kokelj, a permafrost scientist with the NWT Geological Survey, states “the whole discipline of permafrost study is relatively new, yet it’s the glue that holds the landscape together. Some advances in good global governance were made at COP26. It’s not all disastrous, but we must find ways to actually translate that into urgent action – the key to the cryosphere (Earth’s surface where water is in solid form) crisis.”
Cascade reported as early as 2021 resulting emissions were estimated at between 0.3 and 0.6 billion tonnes of carbon yearly, roughly equivalent to 7% of the world’s total carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Without aggressive climate policies, cumulative permafrost emissions could reach 150 billion tonnes of carbon – nearly half the world’s remaining carbon budget. Cascade held 4 dialogues in 2021 bringing together Indigenous leaders and several global experts to review the science and complex technical, policy, cultural, and ethical challenges arising from permafrost thawing. Cascade supports scientists now wanting robust data on permafrost carbon emissions in international negotiations. Also, they would like a Canadian monitoring network that identifies thaw mechanisms and accurately measures the carbon released to see whether thawing might be slowed or whether regions might be converted from net carbon sources to net sinks, meaning they would absorb more carbon than they release.
This year the UN stated permafrost melting is reshaping landscapes, displacing villages, and disrupting fragile animal habitats while threatening to release frozen dangerous microorganisms. According to NASA, scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost. Landfills once in dry areas are leaking waste and toxic materials into lagoons and rivers. Many communities moving across the land in the winter using frozen rivers and lakes find these are not “freezing” enough anymore. Thawing is causing some riverbanks to erode making it harder for communities to access clean water and fish,” states Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, lead author of the Polar Regions Chapter of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, and Head of Conservation for WWF’s Arctic Programme. Dr. Sommerkorn notes scientists want a thematic day to set aside at COP27, for a dedicated cryosphere dialogue on the impacts and consequences of this changing landscape.
Global Comment (a web magazine) declares Canada’s north may become a new centre of food production for wheat, potatoes, corn, and soybeans given warming. However, replacing northern forests with farmland will contribute to more emissions and warming. Biodiversity and water quality will also be harmed. To help Arctic ecosystems stay in balance, WWF Canada is working directly with Inuit communities on habitat protection advocacy for Arctic species, sustainable fisheries, protecting coastal habitats and wildlife, mitigating Arctic shipping impacts and supporting local community renewable-energy initiatives.
An October 2020 federal report, ‘Coastal and Offshore Permafrost Rapid Response Assessment,’ identified urgent geoscience research needs on changing permafrost conditions explaining how land, coastline, and offshore areas are connected and made important recommendations on future research priorities. These changes, which include rapidly eroding coastlines, ground subsidence, landslides, and the alteration of ground and surface water dynamics (lakes, streams, and surface seepage) are particularly affecting communities along the Arctic coast. Loss of biodiversity and ecosystems are creating irreversible changes. The reports state local communities in conjunction with governments are looking for scientific and engineering solutions to eroding shorelines and land subsidence. Lack of understanding of permafrost and associated geological processes is hampering policy development and actions to effectively address the problems. There is an urgent need for community and scientific collaboration to co-design additional monitoring, testing, and modeling studies. Local knowledge, as well as indigenous youth involvement in all aspects of ongoing work, is essential for the development of successful mitigation strategies. The report provides necessary guidance for new science to help assess potential geohazards and develop targeted strategies to build more resilient infrastructure. It just needs implementation.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Canada Country Manager Diane Szoller