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Melted Permafrost in Alaska a Sign of Accelerating Climate Change

Photo Courtesy: Sue Natali

Extreme heat in Europe and the continental U.S. has made headlines this summer. What you may not have heard about is what’s been going on in Alaska: 90 degree temps in the arctic, wildfires and rare lightning storms, and the ground literally collapsing due to the melting of permafrost.

A team of scientists and students with Woods Hole Research Center’s Polaris Project are just back from a trip to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to study climate impacts. Lead scientist Sue Natali says she’s never seen anything like it in her years of Arctic research, and warns it is a sign of abrupt and accelerating climate change.

As part of their research, Natali and her team installed temperature sensors down to a meter at what should have been permafrost. What they discovered was thawing, which in turn created ground collapse at a level she’d never seen before.  

It begs the question, is this just one extreme year, or is this the result of climate change?

“It's definitely climate change,” Natali said. “It's accelerating and the past couple years have been particularly bad. The past winters have been warm. There has been rain when there should be snow, the ground hasn't been frozen in this area." And, she added, "the ground surface didn't freeze until mid-January this year.”

In addition to being unsafe, ground collapse also emits higher methane emissions.

“In undisturbed tundra, we have never seen nitrous oxide emissions, or nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas. It's more than 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide and so these are new observations,” Natali said.

Credit Photo Courtesy: Sue Natali

She and her team are gathering and processing information, but there’s still a lot of unknown. The changes are happening at a fast rate, but it’s proving difficult to put into a model.

“I would say we're being quite conservative when we make our estimates about how much carbon will be released from thawing permafrost because of these sort-of surprising events.”

In terms of numbers, Natali estimates that about 150 billion tons of carbon will be released from thawing permafrost by the end of the century if we continue to re-emit fossil fuel emissions at our current rate. That's on-par with the U.S. emission rate.

But, she says, if we control warming from fossil fuels, we can control the release from permafrost thawing.

As part of her research, Natali speaks with Native Alaskans. She says they're dealing with the changes by working with each other, and by working with scientists. She noted people are themselves moving their own houses.

But there's only so much people can do. The problems that are happening in the Arctic are globally caused. “And I think there should be global support.”

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.