Video: New Process Might Mean Faster Permafrost Melt

June 13, 2019

A few months ago, I posted a piece, based on interviews with leading permafrost experts, that pushed back, hard, on the “we’re all gonna die and there’s nothing we can do” catastrophism around the so-called “methane bomb” in the arctic. (I’ll repost that one below if you have not seen it)

That’s not to say that we don’t have a problem. When people tell me that the world is about to end, my response is that we’re not getting off that easy.
Above, more from the same researchers, looking at a little more fine grained data from the permafrost – and observations of a phenomenon that is coming into sharper focus.
As the planet warms, permafrost is softening, causing microbes to awaken and begin feeding on the organic matter therein – releasing more CO2 and methane. Good enough – but a lot of folks don’t understand that THAT process alone is not a world breaker – in fact, as more vegetation springs from softened permafrost, photosynthesis is kicking in – carbon is being stored, and in some models, actually sequestering more carbon.

The more pressing issue coming into focus is that the permafrost does not melt uniformly, and tends to collapse here and there into thousands, maybe millions, of lakes – that break through the surface “active layer” of the permafrost, and into the reservoir of more deeply stored carbon.
These lakes are hot-spots of carbon and methane release, and could add substantially to the total output in coming centuries.
It’s not the sudden catastrophic impact of disaster movies, but, as one of the experts, Katey Walter Anthony, told me, “’s a strong headwind.”

For this video I drew upon interviews with Anthony, and her colleague Ben Abbott, both co-authors on a new paper outlining the problem.


Modellers attempt to project how much of this carbon will be released when the permafrost thaws. It is complicated: for example, they need to understand how much of the carbon in the air will be taken up by plants and returned to the soil, replenishing some of what was lost. Predictions suggest that slow and steady thawing will release around 200 billion tonnes of carbon over the next 300 years under a business-as-usual warming scenario3. That’s equivalent to about 15% of all the soil carbon currently stockpiled in the frozen north. 

But that could be a vast underestimate. Around 20% of frozen lands have features that increase the likelihood of abrupt thawing, such as large quantities of ice in the ground or unstable slopes2. Here permafrost thaws quickly and erratically, triggering landslides and rapid erosion. Forests can be flooded, killing large areas of trees. Lakes that have existed for generations can disappear, or their waters can be diverted.

Worse, the most unstable regions also tend to be the most carbon-rich2. For example, 1 million square kilometres of Siberia, Canada and Alaska contain pockets of Yedoma — thick deposits of permafrost from the last ice age4. These deposits are often 90% ice, making them extremely vulnerable to warming. Moreover, because of the glacial dust and grasslands that were folded in when the deposits formed, Yedoma contains 130 billion tonnes of organic carbon — the equivalent of more than a decade of global human greenhouse-gas emissions. 

How much permafrost carbon might be released with abrupt thawing? As a first step, this year we synthesized results from published studies of abrupt thawing across the permafrost zone. We asked how this type of thawing influences plants, soils and moisture in the ground. The studies revealed patterns of collapse and recovery. This international project was supported by the Permafrost Carbon Network (, part of the multimillion-dollar global Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH).

Lakes and wetlands are a big part of the problem because they release large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than CO25. Erosion from hills and mountains is also problematic: when hillsides thaw and break up, much CO2 is released as material is destabilized, decomposed or washed into streams or rivers6.

We estimate that abrupt permafrost thawing in lowland lakes and wetlands, together with that in upland hills, could release between 60 billion and 100 billion tonnes of carbon by 2300. This is in addition to the 200 billion tonnes of carbon expected to be released in other regions that will thaw gradually. Although abrupt permafrost thawing will occur in less than 20% of frozen land, it increases permafrost carbon release projections by about 50%. Gradual thawing affects the surface of frozen ground and slowly penetrates downwards. Sudden collapse releases more carbon per square metre because it disrupts stockpiles deep in frozen layers. 

Furthermore, because abrupt thawing releases more methane than gradual thawing does, the climate impacts of the two processes will be similar7. So, together, the impacts of thawing permafrost on Earth’s climate could be twice that expected from current models.

Stabilizing the climate at 1.5 °C of warming8 requires massive cuts in carbon emissions from human activities; extra carbon emissions from a thawing Arctic make that even more urgent.

All my sources agree that the human induced component is by far the largest source of warming gases – over and over again I was told that the total permafrost impact under business as usual, under the old models, was on the order of 10 percent.
But this new research could show that the thermokarst process might amplify the total by as much as half.
Below, I’ve got a more detailed clip from Ben Abbott.

Here’s the controversial “Methane Bomb” piece.

And finally, some beautiful footage of the permafrost areas that came to me from Florida International University.


10 Responses to “Video: New Process Might Mean Faster Permafrost Melt”

  1. rsmurf Says:

    Humans….. we still know very little of our planet, how it works, and how we are effecting it!

  2. redskylite Says:

    There is so much happening now, ahead of conservative science projections, the onus must be on what we must do to stop any further abrupt happenings. It must be prioritized.

    A newspapers reporting of the unexpected permafrost melt acceleration.

    “Climate change: Arctic permafrost now melting at levels not expected until 2090”

  3. redskylite Says:

    And they know something about melting permafrost in Siberia. . .

    “Alarming wildfires rage near giant ‘Mouth of Hell’ gash in the tundra, a wonder of Siberia

    The fires are now raging some 10 to 15 kilometres from the megaslump crater – a large hole in the frozen Arctic soil which highlights the dramatic speed of thawing permafrost.

    The Batagaika or Batagai “megaslump” is a tadpole-shaped depression around one kilometre long, 800 metres wide and 100 metres deep.

    It is growing by some 15 to 30 metres a year – but if it is hit by the nearby inferno this would destroy trees on its rim and loosen the soil even more, resulting in further collapses.”

  4. redskylite Says:

    And Siberia may become a migration endpoint for Russians from warmer parts as we continue our journey into a hotter Earth.

    I just wonder if the Taiga will survive – or another CO2 sink lost.

    “Siberia could become ‘habitable’ by 2080, study suggests”

    Researchers say that as temperatures rise and permafrost is expected to shift, Siberia could become home to more people.

  5. redskylite Says:

    From the Union of Concerned Scientists (USA) . . .

    Boreal Forests at Risk

    Boreal and arctic regions are harbingers of climate change to come for the rest of the world. Their fate not only serves as the opening act of our climate drama, but will also play a key role in regulating the intensity and extent of impacts throughout the rest of the world.

    While these ecosystems may be breaking temperature records, and topping the charts for climate change impacts, if they keep winning, we all lose.

  6. redskylite Says:

    Same story in Alaska. .

    Climate crisis: Alaska is melting and it’s likely to accelerate global heating

    The state has just had its warmest spring on record, causing permafrost to thaw and dramatically reshaping some areas

    The drastic reshaping of Akiak is probably down to thawing permafrost, the frozen organic matter held within soils. Alaska is heating up twice as quickly as the rest of the US as a result of human-driven climate breakdown, increasingly causing this permafrost to thaw and destabilize buildings and cause roads to buckle.

    “The changes are really accelerating in Alaska,” said Susan Natali, a scientist and Arctic expert at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. “It’s pretty likely this riverbank in Akiak was lost because of thawing permafrost, given where it’s situated and the warm winter and spring they’ve had. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away.”

  7. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Check out the satellite view of, say, the Yamal Peninsula (via Google Earth or for widespread examples of this.

  8. dumboldguy Says:

    Ho-Hum! Except for Bob in NZ, no one seems to be getting much excited over this news. You would think that those of us in the Northern Hemisphere would pay more attention to what’s happening in the far north, since we are going to feel the first impacts (correction, ARE FEELING the first impacts). The web of interlocking effects of AGW grows stronger and broader—-what keeps me up is thinking about when we are going to exceed the irreversible tipping points and go into positive and exponential feedback.

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