Why Permafrost Melting Faster than Expected is a Major Issue for Climate Change

Melting Permafrost

Melting Permafrost Is Heating Earth Rapidly

Melting permafrost has been named a player in climate change for as long as we’ve been talking about climate change. Permafrost covers 24% of land in the Northern Hemisphere and holds a whole lot of water. When we talk about climate change, we often think rising sea levels due to glaciers melting as our most significant issue, so when we talk about “melting permafrost” we think the added water is the problem. Permafrost accounts for two-tenths of a percent of the water on earth which isn’t a lot whatsoever. After reading that number, you might say that melting permafrost isn’t a big deal, but I’d say you need to read into the issue a little more. 

Permafrost isn’t just water. It contains rocks, seeds, and dead plants and animals. The permafrost is like a large deep freezer that has been running for thousands of years at subzero temperatures. Nothing in there is really edible anymore, but eventually, we might have to deal with disposing of all the contents of the refrigerator. 

Let’s stick with this freezer example. 

Permafrost: Earth's Freezer

You’ve returned home to your vacation home after three long years and realize you left the freezer chock-full of food. You know immediately from the smell of the ice that’s been hanging around in there that it’s all freezer burned and you need to throw it away. For the sake of argument, the freezer is filled with ice frozen solid around the food so you can’t just take it out and put it in the trash you need to thaw it first. 

You decide to unplug the freezer and let it come to temperature and deal with it when it’s thawed. Good idea right?

WRONG.

Huge mistake. It’s taken three days for the ice to melt completely and you’ve been cleaning up puddles of water that have been seeping out of the fridge. Not a huge problem it’s just tedious to clean what accumulates regularly. But on the third day, you have to take a two-day day trip to your nearby city. You pack your bag, but you never turned the freezer back on! 

When you return to the house, you open the door and are hit with the most rotten putrid smell you could imagine. The food in the freezer has been at room temperature for over 48 hours and is rotting in your house. A bloody slimy pool of liquid has accumulated all over the kitchen floor.

The cleaning process that will come after this will take hours to dispose and disinfect properly. Even after the smell is gone who knows what kind of bacteria may have migrated around your kitchen!

Moral of the story is just keep the freezer COLD! NOT OFF!

What To Expect In the Near Future

Ok back to the permafrost.

The permafrost is keeping our organic matter trapped under ice. We’re not concerned about “disposing” of the matter, but more the “smell” that it’s going to give off when it melts. 

The smells we’re talking about are global warming gases. 

Being that much of what’s trapped in the permafrost is dead, it still needs to release its gasses as it decays. To answer your question, you just formed in your head of “how much greenhouse gas exactly?” It’s estimated that the permafrost is expected to store nearly twice the amount of carbon that is currently in the atmosphere. To make matters worse there’s lots of methane there too!

Just like in the freezer example, none of this was a problem when everything was frozen. Out of sight out of mind. The earth itself placed these things in the permafrost during the ice age and wanted to keep them there. There’s a reason its called PERMAfrost. 

Our ongoing warming of the planet has turned off the freezer in the north, and south poles and the consequences are turning out to be worse than we initially expected. In the past, we believed the permafrost would melt at a much slower rate that wouldn’t put 20% of the carbon released in the industrial revolution alone in the atmosphere by 2100. Instead, it could be even worse than this. 

Melting Permafrost

Melting Faster Than We Thought

Just a few weeks ago a new study showed that twelve times more nitrous oxide is being released than previously determined. This greenhouse gas is even better at trapping heat and also dissolves ozone. 

You’re probably reading and thinking “Wow this is pretty out of control.” But wait there’s more!

Frozen in the permafrost are seeds and spores that could awaken. In fact, scientists have gotten some of the seeds to sprout and bear fruit! I’d have to say that awakening ancient plants that haven’t grown on earth in thousands of years is pretty cool. 

What’s not so cool is that microbes, spores, and viruses could also be revived. 

Imagine humans being exposed to some virus that our immune systems may never have had to deal with before. Maybe the virus could harm our livestock or crops, in turn, harming humans. The possibilities lurking in the melting permafrost are endless and uncertain. One thing that is for sure however is that earth would begin to heat much more rapidly than we’ve seen previously. 

Along with these significant issues the melting permafrost is giving us to deal with we have to consider the changing landscape that comes along with all of it.

Changing the Landscape

The melting permafrost is creating lakes, ponds, and soft mushy ground where there used to be hard packed frozen soil. Imagine the effects this will have on the wildlife in these regions. Reindeer being pushed into territory they’ve never lived in before. Predators like polar bears losing even more of their already limited hunting grounds. Entire ecosystems will collapse if we lose too much of the permafrost. 

As we know now, melting permafrost is the first domino in a string of dominoes that could damage the planet beyond repair. A four to five degree Celsius increase in earths temperature could make many areas on the planet inhabitable. Let’s face it the entire earth will be inhabitable because our life here is so delicate when you take into consideration we won’t be able to breathe because oxygen production will be impossible in our oceans. 

Melting Ice

What Can We Do?

The point of this article, however, isn’t to frighten people who read it into thinking we can’t do anything. Efforts now need to be innovative ones. Ideas to trap and store carbon emissions somehow are our best option, but to my knowledge, not a whole lot of them exist. 

While we need to maintain our efforts we’re currently making to curb our emissions and be a “greener” earth, it’s simply not enough unless we hit it full force. Countries stopping coal usage by 2050 is merely insufficient. How about 2020. 

The people of earth need to make an immediate effort to stop what they’re doing and change. If we want to continue to live our lives, then we need to make adjustments today, not years from now.  

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