• Abrupt melting of the permafrost layer is leading to erosion, landslides and craters in the Arctic landscape.
  • As the permafrost melts, greenhouse gases are released into the environment.
  • Current climate change forecasts may underestimate the emissions from permafrost because they only take into account gradual thawing of the ice layer.

Residents of the small Alaskan town Kongiganak can no longer bury their dead. Their cemetery has become a marshy swamp, sucking graves into the once frozen ground.

On the island of Sarichef near the Bering Strait, the village of Shishmaref is shrinking so fast locals are considering relocating it entirely.

Global warming has shown that permafrost is not so permanent after all. And as it begins to melt, it is reshaping the Arctic.

The rapidly thawing ice layer is creating great sinkholes and hollows across the region as the ground begins to collapse in on itself. Erosion and landslides have become a problem without the ice that once held the soil together.

Permafrost thaw ponds in Hudson Bay Canada near Greenland
Permafrost thaw ponds in Hudson Bay, Canada
Image: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Permafrost – any area of land that remains frozen for at least two years – can vary from less than a metre thick to more than 1,500 metres. Some of it is tens of thousands of years old.

In some areas, it is simply frozen rock. But in other parts, soils and organic matter have acted like a sponge and taken in water which has subsequently frozen. As ice, water takes up a larger volume than its liquid form, but once melted, great pits are created in the land.

Arctic Permafrost
Thawing of the arctic permafrost.
Image: Nature

A problem multiplied

But the problem extends beyond an increasingly pock-marked landscape.

Scientists have known for years that melting permafrost will release greenhouse gases stored within and under it, creating a climate change feedback loop with the potential to warm our planet even faster. Rather than acting as a carbon sink, permafrost becomes a source of emissions.

The adverse effects of melting permafrost
Melting permafrost creates a vicious circle of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming
Image: UNEP

But the abrupt melting of the permafrost layer in some places, caused by warmer polar temperatures, could mean far more carbon is released than previously estimated, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience.

Less than one-fifth of the permafrost zone is likely to see this abrupt thawing, but its impact on the surrounding landscape means up to half of permafrost carbon could be affected.

Existing climate change models are based on gradual thawing of the permafrost layer caused by seasonal temperature fluctuations and fail to take into account the impact of more rapid thawing. This means we need to put in place measures to counteract human-induced emissions more quickly than we thought.

But David Olefeldt, who coauthored the paper in Nature Geoscience, warns against over-dramatizing the problem.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

"The permafrost carbon feedback is not the proverbial climate bomb – but is it an important climate change accelerator which we do need to take into account.

"Future greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost [will be] significantly smaller than current human greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions from permafrost thaw are large enough that they are important to take into consideration when projecting future climate change and when setting emissions targets for international negotiations."

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. Temperatures have risen by 1℃ in the last decade alone, causing ice sheets to melt and sea levels to rise while threatening wildlife.

Getting a handle on warming temperatures at our earth’s poles is crucial if we are to keep global warming within agreed limits.