The world’s permafrost is thawing fast and it’s a big climate change problem

The Prairie Climate Change Project is a joint initiative of CBC Edmonton and CBC Saskatchewan that focuses on weather and our changing climate. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga brings her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and their impact on daily life.

As we strive to reduce emissions, another source of greenhouse gases is surfacing.

An international study published this fall shows that thawing permafrost could add as many greenhouse gases to our atmosphere as a major industrial nation by the end of the century.

In the Arctic, warming is amplified, with annual temperatures rising by 2.3°C since 1948, more than double the global rate, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Some reports show that the warming is even happening faster.

Warming temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns are factors that can accelerate permafrost thaw.

The amount of emissions from permafrost directly depends on the warming of our atmosphere – the higher the degree of warming, the more emissions we can expect.

“It’s like adding another country,” says David Olefeldt, associate professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.

What happens when permafrost thaws?

Permafrost is the thick layer of frozen ground that covers nearly half of Canada. It contains a large amount of carbon and microorganisms. What will happen as it thaws over the next 80 years? Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga looks into the impact.

Based on the study, future emissions by the end of the century range from 55 billion tonnes of carbon in CO2 equivalents under lower emissions scenarios to 232 billion tonnes of carbon under higher emissions, released as carbon dioxide and methane.

To put that into perspective, if Russia, the United States and China were to continue emitting as they did in 2019, they would release 46, 144 and 277 billion tonnes, respectively, by the end of the century.

Olefeldt says that under a moderate warming scenario, greenhouse gas emissions from the permafrost region this century will be equivalent to annual emissions somewhere between those of Russia and the United States.

Researchers McKenzie Kuhn and Trisha Elliot measure methane emissions from a pond that is enlarging due to thawing permafrost near Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories (David Olefeldt)

Carbon below the surface

Permafrost is a thick layer of land that remains frozen throughout the year.

It begins about one meter below the surface for the northern regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the southern Northwest Territories and Yukon, but even shallower farther north.

The layer of frozen ground reaches depths ranging from 15 meters below the surface to 700 meters in parts of the western Arctic, and is the product of thousands of years of freezing.

According to Olefeldt, permafrost soil contains a lot of soil carbon — undecomposed plant material that has been slowly accumulating over thousands of years.

Researchers take a permafrost core from a bog near Wrigley, Northwest Territories (David Olefeldt)

“Currently there is probably almost twice as much carbon in the permafrost soil as there is carbon in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,” he says.

“So what’s the future of this soil carbon? What’s happening to it, right?”

Olefeldt says the process is similar to what happens when you take leftovers out of the freezer.

“You put it on your counter and it starts to break down, and whatever breaks down releases greenhouse gases.”

Olefedt says those emissions can be carbon dioxide or, if the area is near water, methane, a more potent greenhouse gas.

Regarding this recent study, Olefedt says there is a level of uncertainty, but that uncertainty has been reduced over the past 10 to 15 years.

It’s too late?

Olefeldt says Arctic emissions are unavoidable, and because Canada is the second-largest permafrost country after Russia, those numbers will be significant.

“[Permafrost emissions] are very likely to be larger than Canada’s fossil fuel emissions, and probably by a factor of, you know, a few times,” he says

That being said, Olefeldt says it’s not too late in terms of cutting our own emissions to curb the thaw.

“Any reduction we make in emissions to slow global warming means we’re going to release less greenhouse gases from the Arctic.”

He also adds that permafrost emissions will not be responsible for runaway climate change.

“It’s like an accelerator,” he says.

“At the same time, we’re pretty sure now that it’s not something so small that we don’t have to worry about it.”

As rising temperatures melt the permafrost, the terrain in the North is being altered by landslides and erosion. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Permafrost and the landscape

The effects of permafrost thaw go beyond emissions and are already clear to those who live on frozen land.

It’s something that Chris Burn, senior professor of geography at Carleton University, has studied for more than 40 years.

“The current problem, which is climate change, doesn’t affect the bottom of the permafrost, which is very low, it affects what happens at the top,” Burn said.

According to Burn, temperature increases have been consistent across the region and have had the greatest impact on the western Arctic permafrost in terms of climate change.

“Increase in precipitation is not as clear in the record as increase in temperature,” he says.

“Precipitation is much more variable from year to year… some years there isn’t much precipitation at all, so it doesn’t really contribute to permafrost thaw.”

Burn said that in years of extreme precipitation, permafrost can melt quickly as rain seeps into the ground, bringing heat with it.

But despite the primary role of temperature in thawing permafrost, increased precipitation in the Arctic with climate change is the most near-term problem, according to Burn.

“Water, when it comes to the surface as rain, it can’t sink very far into the ground…all the spaces in the ground are full of ice.”

This rain enters the rivers very quickly, allowing them to rise quickly and wash away anything nearby, and increases the risk of landslides.

A section of the Dempster Highway where thawing permafrost is causing the highway embankment to collapse. (Geological Survey of the Northwest Territories)

“Characteristically, roads are built near rivers because rivers are at the bottom of the valley and that’s where it’s easy to build a road. So roads are removed because of more flooding .”

coastal erosion is also a major concern as permafrost thaws and sea ice is lost, leading to larger storms on the coastline.

Burn adds that warming the ground will also pose problems for infrastructure.

“When there’s ice in the ground, it supports anything above it, but when it turns to water, it doesn’t support it. So the ground sinks.”

Burn says that for a community on permafrost thaw, homes will move, sewer lines could break and utility poles could topple.

“You know, it’s something everyone has to worry about.”

living on ice

“It’s just crazy. It’s amazing how things change here,” says Wanda Pascal.

Pascal is the former Chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in Council and has lived her entire life in Fort McPherson in the northern part of the Northwest Territories.

Wanda Pascal, former leader of the Tetlit Gwich’in Council, says she noticed drastic changes due to thawing permafrost on the ground. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

She now leads community programs in the territory, teaching traditional food.

“Walking the traditional trails, I see all the changes. The water is pretty low. There are so many willow trees growing that’s where the water goes down,” she says.

“There are so many subsidences, the permafrost is thawing quickly.”

Pascal says traveling the earth can be difficult with the changes, and sometimes even dangerous.

“There are more slides in the mountains, the other day we were going through the mountains and there was a slide,” she says.

“I do ‘on-the-land’ programs, we hike and even our traditional trails are covered in landslides, so there are a lot of things we really need to be careful of.”

In town, Pascal says that houses, including his own built in 1992, are damaged by the melting permafrost.

“Underneath we have logs supporting our buildings…the pilings are rotting, as if it’s from the permafrost melting below.”

And roads, like the Dempster Highway, which connects the community south through the Yukon and north to Inuvik, become impassable at certain times of the year due to flooding and landslides.

As for the future, Pascal says his community will have to deal with whatever is coming, and with the rapid changes seen in the North, future generations will need to be prepared.

“There are not only disasters on the other side of the world, but there will soon be disasters here.”

Longer term risks

These risks go beyond the surface level for the Arctic. Burn says the effects of oil and gas exploration in the 60s and 70s could also be revealed in the future.

“Any waste created by this activity was dumped into large pits…and the permafrost would prevent it from disappearing into the environment,” Burn says.

“The warming is not going to stop, so the ground is getting warmer and as the ground gets warmer it loses its ability to hold waste.”

Burn says that in 10 to 15 years or less, an emerging issue will be whether these areas will remain a place that can contain waste.

While these issues are more immediate, Burn adds there’s more to think about down the road.

“The long-term problem is associated with things like what happens if the ground really warms up and the tree line shifts and the ecology changes drastically.”

Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative called “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up to date with the latest news on our Climate and environment page.

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