Climate Change Sustainability: What Is the Problem With Permafrost?

The study of permafrost is still a relatively new scientific discipline, with research producing complex results that have many environmentalists and geologists in a state of confusion. Essentially, permafrost refers to ground containing soil, sand, gravel, and ice in the form of an active layer and a permanent layer. The active layer is variably thin, which naturally thaws and refreezes each year; whereas, the permanent layer is filled with organic matter that resides beneath at temperatures below 0°C for more than two years. Many people fear the release of greenhouse gas emissions from melting permafrost due to global warming, as 50% of the global carbon pool rests in permafrost. However, predictive models indicate that only 10 to 20% of such deeply buried carbon and methane may escape over time in a business as usual scenario, resulting in a gradual rate of impact compared to other climate change effects.

The question: Do we need to worry about the state of permafrost?

Despite the lack of information about permafrost behavior and the slow rate of predicted melting, this environmental issue is a serious cause for concern. The thawing of permafrost is ‘widespread, accelerating and irreversible’ (Anthony, 2019). Permafrost land covers a quarter of the northern hemisphere globally, totaling 22.8 million square kilometers and containing ‘four times the amount of carbon released from all human activities since [the year] 1850’ (Anthony, 2019). In the case of Canada, approximately 50% of the country consists of permafrost spread throughout the northern territories in the arctic region.

Inaccurate Models

In terms of melting rate analysis, the current predictive models are too simplistic, lacking the ability to account for the many nuances of climate change and to produce accurate estimation results. Consequentially, significantly higher permafrost melting rates have been observed in both Alaska and Siberia compared to the percentage rates predicted by models. In reality, permafrost ‘was about 20% more sensitive to warming than suggested by models’ from the year 1960 to 1990, as proven in a 2017 study that was published in an academic journal called Nature Climate Change (Anthony, 2019).

Socioecological Impacts

The melting of permafrost has a variety of ecological, hydrological, and societal impacts, especially regarding the wellbeing of Northern communities. One effect is known as thermokarst, which refers to the water-filled craters formed by collapsing peatlands from the permafrost’s thawing ice. Thermokarst causes severe landslides and flooding from the enlargement of lake areas, damaging the local infrastructure and the wildlife habitats relied upon for subsistence hunting. In addition, the reduction in permafrost re-surfaces various deceased matter, such as animal carcasses that can be ‘infected with deadly anthrax bacteria’ (Anthony, 2019).

Climate Change Awareness

While those who seek to develop northern regions (i.e. pipeline, mining, hydroelectric dam, and transportation developers) may downplay the rate and the effects of melting permafrost, it is nonetheless a critical issue that needs a lot more understanding. Many issues involving our planet’s climate are highly debated due to the assimilation of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation refers to the unintentional spread of false information, whereas disinformation refers to the intentional spread of false information. It is important to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of any factual information to determine its reliability as a source. Amidst the many devastating impacts of the current climate crisis, the thawing of permafrost land is yet another environmental issue that deserves significant attention and it should not be thought of as otherwise or of any less importance.


Anthony, L. (2019). Arctic permafrost is melting. Here’s what that means for Canada’s North – and the world. Canadian Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/arctic-permafrost-thawing-heres-what-means-canadas-north-and-world

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