February 26th, 2020 by Johnna Crider
An article from Wired has an alarming headline that shows the impact of a fast-thawing permafrost gouging holes in the Arctic. Usually, these terrains of frozen earth thaw slowly — usually, but these are unusual times. Landscapes are collapsing in on themselves due to the permafrost thawing faster than ever recorded. Another worry is that when the permafrost thaws, microbes consuming organic matter release CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. This brings about more warming, more thawing, and more carbon. It’s a vicious cycle that, once started, is feared to wreak havoc on our climate and living conditions on this planet.
Wired called attention to thermokarst as well, which UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s apparently isn’t focusing on. Thermokarst refers to the land ravaged by the rapid thawing of permafrost. The ice is the glue that holds it together, and when it suddenly disappears, hillsides collapse and massive sinkholes appear. This happens on the scale of meters over months or years and puts the surrounding landscape into a state of shock that releases even more carbon than it would have if it thawed at a slower rate.
Merritt Turetsky, of the Universities of Guelph and Colorado-Boulder, points out that, “The amount of carbon coming off that very narrow amount of abrupt thaw in the landscape, that small area, is still large enough to double the climate consequences and the permafrost carbon feedback.” In other words, this is worse than what scientists have feared.
Another consideration is that when the permafrost melts quickly, it does more than just releasing the carbon and retiring. The ecosystem can heal and start trying to recapture some of that carbon again. If the land has thawed and has become flooded with water, new trees can’t grow, so instead it could form an area that is similar to that of a wetland and could even form peat due to having waterlogged plant material. If that happens, the ecosystem could eventually recover some of the carbon that was lost, but keep in mind, this carbon that is currently in the permafrost has been collected over millions of years.
This recapturing could take just as long. Add into the mix that the Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, creating more opportunities for sudden permafrost thawing. In the article, Wired shared the thoughts of Turetsky and a few others who all agree that this is something that needs more research. One thing is clear: the ecosystem in the Arctic is changing faster than anticipated. “And the faster we cut emissions, the less they will suffer,” writes the author of the article. I think that we are beyond that stage. With the oceans becoming more acidic and ice melting in Antarctica, I think we need to not only focus on cutting emissions as fast as we can, but we need to actually prepare ourselves for the inevitable: catastrophic climate change is happening and there is no stopping it. We need to do things to help ourselves in the long run — as in, making sure we can survive well into the next few centuries as a species — while we continue to try to stop global warming.
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