What is permafrost and what does it mean for Canada as it thaws

A startling study from an Alaskan expedition team is shedding light on how changing global temperatures are melting Canada’s Arctic — and fast.

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that layers of permafrost in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have begun thawing decades earlier than expected. At least 70 years earlier, to be exact.


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Permafrost in Canadian Arctic thawing 70 years earlier than predicted: study

The research was conducted between 2003 and 2016 — a period which saw a series of unusually warm summers. During that time, the team monitored the physical and temporal changes of permafrost on three remote islands.

The team discovered that permafrost in these areas is degrading unexpectedly fast, leading to further fears from scientists about a looming climate emergency.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is typically a combination of soil and rock held together by ice.

The ground must remain frozen at or below 0 C for at least two consecutive years for it to be considered permafrost.

Most permafrost is found at high latitudes, near the north and south poles, but can also exist in lower latitudes on high mountains.

Canadian Geographic says permafrost covers approximately 25 per cent of the land in the northern hemisphere and 40 to 50 per cent of land in Canada. In the continental U.S., it covers about 15 per cent and in China about 22 per cent. The land in Alaska alone is made up of a whopping 82 per cent of permafrost.

Permafrost is classified by temperature, rather than moisture or what lives on top of it. So although the ground may be frozen, it may not be covered in snow.

If snow-covered, that layer, called the active layer, doesn’t necessarily stay frozen all year.

“It thaws during the warm summer months and freezes again in the fall,” according to NASA. “In cold regions, the ground rarely thaws — even in the summer. There the active layer is very thin — only 10 to 15 centimetres.”

But permafrost is warming faster than Arctic air temperatures and melting quicker than anticipated. The Alaskan researchers said their findings are an indication that the climate is warmer now than “any time in the last 5,000 years.”

What does it mean for Canada?

The deterioration of permafrost will impact climate and ecosystems locally, regionally and globally.

When the centuries-old ice starts to melt, infrastructures on the upper layer can shift and collapse. Examples of what happens when permafrost melts can be seen in Alaska and northern Russia where buildings and roads are crumbling as the ground beneath disintegrates.

This Aug. 12, 2009, photo shows a section of the vital Dempster Highway linking southern Canada with the Northwest Territories after it collapsed because warming temperatures caused the permafrost below to thaw.

This Aug. 12, 2009, photo shows a section of the vital Dempster Highway linking southern Canada with the Northwest Territories after it collapsed because warming temperatures caused the permafrost below to thaw.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Rick Bowmer
Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens houses at the Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak in the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 13, 2019.

Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens houses at the Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak in the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 13, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens a school at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak in the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens a school at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak in the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens a school at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Severe erosion of the permafrost tundra threatens a school at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Tribal elder Walter Nelson beside a cemetery that has been relocated and is now a mass grave beacuse of severe erosion of the permafrost tundra at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Tribal elder Walter Nelson beside a cemetery that has been relocated and is now a mass grave beacuse of severe erosion of the permafrost tundra at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Yupik Eskimo children play basketball on a court built above the permafrost in the town of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Yupik Eskimo children play basketball on a court built above the permafrost in the town of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta, Alaska on April 18, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
This Sept. 12, 2016 file photo shows the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway under construction.

This Sept. 12, 2016 file photo shows the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway under construction.

THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Tawna Brown
Cars are seen on the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk highway on November 15, 2017 in Inuvik, Canada.

Cars are seen on the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk highway on November 15, 2017 in Inuvik, Canada.

Melinda Trochu/AFP/Getty Images
This photo taken Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009, shows the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Seas rising from global warming and land sinking as permafrost thaws are threatening the Arctic community.

This photo taken Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009, shows the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Seas rising from global warming and land sinking as permafrost thaws are threatening the Arctic community.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The quick thaw of predominately icy permafrost can start a process called thermokarst, which drastically changes landscapes. Examples of this are seen in the research of Canadian islands by the University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers.

While the Canadian islands studied in this particular report are hundreds of kilometres away from civilization, so there aren’t any building to crumble, the thawing can wreak havoc on the larger ecosystem.

The changes could alter the flow of water and drain lakes, impacting plant and animal life. It is possible the fluctuation will create food security issues for Indigenous people living in the remote areas who rely on hunting and fishing, Canadian Geographic noted.

It can also act as a Pandora’s Box for bacteria.

The permafrost can act as a refrigerator for diseases that could be harmful to humans if it emerges from the ice. Four “ancient viruses” have been discovered in previously frozen soil since 2004, Canadian Geographic reported.

A small lake in the Northwest Territories next to one of many giant-sized permafrost slumps changing the territory's landscape on a scale not seen since the last Ice Age.

A small lake in the Northwest Territories next to one of many giant-sized permafrost slumps changing the territory's landscape on a scale not seen since the last Ice Age.

Credit: Scott Zolkos, University of Alberta

What does it mean for the world?

Most importantly, the melting permafrost can give way to a massive release of methane and other gases, which is a major contributing factor to global warming.

The release of gas spurs what’s described as an irreversible cycle.

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When the long-stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere, it increases the temperature which causes more thawing and triggers additional carbon release.

Researchers believe this loop will only accelerate rapid climate changes already underway.

The impacts stretch beyond the environment and could have a long-term impact on the world economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, aims to ensure global temperatures rise no more than an average of 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

The carbon emitted from thawing permafrost is being pegged as a primary source behind additional costs that could be accrued globally if the goal isn’t met.

While the release of carbon sounds daunting, Antoni Lewkowicz, a professor at the University of Ottawa and president of the Canadian Permafrost Association, said it’s gradual. He described the process as a “long freight train” to Canadian Geographic in April.

WATCH: Permafrost melting faster than scientists can study it

“There had been suggestions in the literature of a ‘permafrost carbon bomb.’ That has been debunked and we now know that the projected release of carbon is far from trivial, but it’s not catastrophic,” he told GlobalNews.ca in an email.

“Although there are still many uncertainties, that message is likely to be maintained.”

The researchers from Alaska believe that their findings are likely just scratching the surface.

“It’s a canary in the coal mine,” the study’s co-author, Louise Farquharson, told Reuters.

“It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.”

This undated photo shows thawing permafrost in the Noatak National Preserve in Alaska.

This undated photo shows thawing permafrost in the Noatak National Preserve in Alaska.

AP, Edward Schuur, University of Florida

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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