Canada’s Arctic permafrost’s collapse can be traced back to climate-driven root causes, and it is much more widespread than initially thought.

A new study from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey has mapped the unprecedented area of permafrost poised to thaw which will threaten local communities, infrastructure, and may speed up global warming.

  • Permafrost is ground that is frozen all year round.
  • Polar regions are warming faster than any other region on earth.
  • All the carbon in the frozen mud and earth is now free to be released into the atmosphere as temperatures warm, along with methane.

Giant craters and canyons are opening up in the Artic permafrost from Siberia to Canada, due to climate change. Scientists have mapped the thawing across a huge area in the north of Canada – a 1.27 million square kilometre region.

“The intensity of the changes that we’re starting to see haven’t been seen for thousands of years,” the study’s lead author Steve Kokelj said. “It’s the first time that disturbance over this large of a landmass has been mapped, and that a scientific rationale was provided for why the hotspots are where they are.”

Another fear is that this thawing process will release methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This could lead to catastrophic climate change, a vicious cycle where by the earth’s warming leads to more greenhouse gases being released which in turn further warms the earth.

THE GLUE THAT HOLDS THE LAND TOGETHER

The further north you go, the more land sits on permafrost, eventually if you go far enough north, it forms the entire landscape along with bodies of water. In Canada, their permafrost is at least 10,000 years old and hundreds of metres thick, dating back to the last ice age.

Sitting on top of it are ecosystems, cities, roads, pipelines, and traditional Indigenous hunting and trapping territories. Much of the permafrost is largely made up of ice, and for thousands of years the cold climate has kept it in tact, but due to rising temperatures and the permafrost thawing, the ice trapped inside is melting, causing the land to collapse.

The thaw of these organic materials and sediments could change water chemistry and alter the landscape for communities. It will not only affect people in Northern Canada, but also millions living across the Arctic.

CONSEQUENCES ARE HUGE

These collapses start as a little nick in the side of a stream or hill exposing the ice underneath, the sun and rain then melt that exposed ice and the disturbance grows exponentially, affecting the land around it.

This process of thaw and collapse is becoming more frequent and more rapid, and more widespread.

“And what we’re seeing now in the landscape in the western Arctic, and we’ve studied these for a number of years, is that some of these features now can consume tens of hectares of area, and over a span of decades they can displace millions of cubic metres of materials down slope, so they’re really big,” Kokelj says.

In some regions of the Arctic, 60 and 70-foot chunks of land are being swallowed every year.

Current estimates are that the world’s permafrost hold roughly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, so its thawing would have an enormous impact on methane and carbon dioxide levels.

Canada isn’t the only place seeing this, in northern Russia buildings are sinking and cracking as the permafrost thaws beneath them. Massive craters up to one kilometre wide are opening up in Siberia.