Permafrost in the remotest parts of the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted, providing further evidence that the global climate crisis is accelerating and drawing the planet ever closer to dangerous feedback loops.
University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers “were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers had destabilized the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia,” reports Reuters.
After a return visit in 2016 to a region that he and his team had explored “a decade or so earlier,” geophysics professor Vladimir E. Romanovsky described a landscape changed beyond all recognition, cratered with the characteristic “thermokarst” pattern of marshy hollows and small hummocks that appears as permafrost thaws, and weirdly green with vegetation.
Published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the Alaskan researchers’ discovery of permafrost thaw in overdrive is “a canary in the coal mine,” said post-doctoral researcher and study co-author Louise Farquharson. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region,” she said. “That’s what we’re going to look at next.”
Rapidly thawing permafrost is deeply concerning because it may release huge amounts of heat-trapping gases like methane, which would in turn trigger a feedback loop that would drive temperatures ever higher.
Confirming permafrost thaw as “one of the tipping points for climate breakdown,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan told Reuters the study findings present “another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”
For Arctic residents, however, the perils of thawing permafrost have already arrived. CBC reportsthat climate change-related maintenance costs for the critically important Dempster Highway, from Dawson City, Yukon to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, “have more than tripled” over the past decade, to C$5.1 million as of 2016.
Increasingly cratered with massive holes, the Dempster is just one of the biggest pieces of Arctic infrastructure that are collapsing as the region warms at three times the global rate. “Mean temperatures in the Western Arctic have increased a staggering 3.4°C since the 1960s,” CBC writes.
Broken highways, as well as a shocking spike in mudslides in the vicinity of the Mackenzie River Delta, are getting federal attention, with the NWT government receiving $800,000 from Ottawa’s Northern Transportation Adaptation Initiative to conduct permafrost testing along the Dempster, and on the road from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik.
But no money in the world can replace some of what is being lost in Tuktoyaktuk itself. The coastline has eroded so much that residents, many of them Elders, are being forced to move inland, away from cooling winds that kept the bugs at bay, while the town’s graveyard is “in danger of slipping into the ocean.”
Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Merven Gruben said coastal erosion could cost his community as much as $50 million—a flash in the pan, he notes, compared to what lies ahead.
“I meet a lot of people in the south, they know where Tuk is, but they don’t believe this global warming thing’s actually happening,” Gruben said. But “the whole circumpolar North is sitting on permafrost, so I don’t know what you can do. You can’t insulate the whole North.”