Across nine million square miles at the top of the planet, climate change is writing a new chapter. Arctic permafrost is thawing much faster than expected, releasing carbon gases that could reshape the planet and drastically speed up global warming. It is already transforming the landscape and changing the lives of people and animals from Alaska to Siberia.
Permafrost, found mostly in the Arctic, is a layer of continuously frozen soil that covers almost 1/4th of the Earth’s surface. Most permafrost areas have been frozen for more than 10,000 years. Trapped inside permafrost are carbon dioxide and methane gas built up from thousands of years of decomposing organic matter-greenhouse gases that if released into the atmosphere by permafrost thaw will make today’s fossil fuel emissions look like chump change.
We are now dangerously close to a tipping point where permafrost thaw will feed on itself, releasing more greenhouse gases, which will fuel more warming. Geologically speaking, permafrost is thawing almost overnight. What scientists came to believe was once hundreds of years away could now happen in our lifetime, with permafrost thaw releasing 2 to nearly three 3 times more greenhouse gases than expected. It is perhaps the least appreciated and well-known reason to hasten a transition to cleaner energy.