Rising temperatures in the Arctic have accelerated the melting of permafrost, which harbors billions of tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs), threatening cities built on it. In addition, the process can release large amounts of methane and CO2 and thus further accelerate global warming. In other words, the whole world is at risk because of it.
Permafrost — or permafrost — is a soil found in the Arctic and rich in organic matter, permanently frozen and harboring large amounts of GHGs. As temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rise, the potential danger also grows.
A study led by the University of Oulu estimated that nearly 70% of roads, pipelines and cities — mostly in Russia — on frozen ground are vulnerable to severe damage by the middle of this century.
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Already another research, conducted by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), calculated that methane and CO2 stored for thousands of years in permafrost can intensify the effects of global warming, increasing global temperature.
Permafrost not only covers a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s land, it also harbors twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere today and triple what has been emitted by human activity since 1850. In half a century, the Arctic has warmed up to three times faster than the rest of the world.
The Arctic has been experiencing climatic anomalies, such as winters with temperatures up to 40°C above normal. On average, this layer warmed by 0.4°C between 2017 and 2016 and the consequences of this are remarkable — by 2100, 4 million square kilometers of it will be lost.
In addition to higher temperatures, another factor threatens this region: forest fires. According to Kimberley Miner, a scientist at Caltech, the trend is for these fires to increase from 130% to 350% by the middle of the century, as the frozen ground melts.
Permafrost is home to 120,000 buildings, 40,000 km of roads and 9,600 km of pipelines, and as this ground becomes more unstable, the entire above-ground structure is in danger. Russia is the most threatened: 80% of the buildings in the city of Vorkuta have deformations related to this process.
The collapse of permafrost is called thermocarst, but the researchers cautioned that this dynamic is often left out of projections onto the Earth system. Thus, there is no way to estimate the true dimension of its impact on the increase in global temperature.
On the one hand, climate change could make the Arctic a green and humid place and, according to the authors, plants would offset some of the released CO2. On the other hand, the region could become dry — which would be the worst case scenario — where GHG emissions would fuel wildfires.
Both studies were published in the journal Nature.