Good Overview on Permafrost

David Trammel's picture

I'm looking hard at what ways I can prepare for an extreme heat event.

"The Great Siberian Thaw - Permafrost contains microbes, mammoths, and twice as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. What happens when it starts to melt?"

"Three million years ago, as continent-­size glaciers pulsed down from the poles, temperatures in Siberia plunged to minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit and vast stretches of soil froze underground. As the planet cycled between glacial and interglacial periods, much of that frozen ground thawed, only to freeze again, dozens of times. Around eleven and a half millennia ago, the last ice age gave way to the current interglacial period, and temperatures began to rise. The soil that remained frozen year-round came to be known as permafrost. It now lies beneath nine million square miles of Earth’s surface, a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. Russia has the world’s largest share: two-thirds of the country’s territory sits on permafrost.

In Yakutia, where the permafrost can be nearly a mile deep, annual temperatures have risen by more than two degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, twice the global average. As the air gets hotter, so does the soil. Deforestation and wildfire—both acute problems in Yakutia—remove the protective top layer of vegetation and raise temperatures underground even more.

Over thousands of years, the frozen earth swallowed up all manner of organic material, from tree stumps to woolly mammoths. As the permafrost thaws, microbes in the soil awaken and begin to feast on the defrosting biomass. It’s a funky, organic process, akin to unplugging your freezer and leaving the door open, only to return a day later to see that the chicken breasts in the back have begun to rot. In the case of permafrost, this microbial digestion releases a constant belch of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientific models suggest that the permafrost contains one and a half trillion tons of carbon, twice as much as is currently held in Earth’s atmosphere."

Ken's picture

Methane release from melting permafrost, along with methane clathrates currently frozen in the oceanic floor, are considered the prime suspects in previous rapid spikes in temperature during interglacial periods. And by rapid, we are talking decades not eons or even centuries. This is the source of nightmare tipping point scenarios...

As you are all undoubtedly aware, methane is ~30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. The good news is it breaks down much faster than CO2; a decade or so rather than centuries. The bad news is the release of massive amounts of methane from melting permafrost could raise ocean temperatures enough to release frozen methane clathrates in the seafloor; which is a tipping point we REALLY don't want to trigger.

Unfortunately, the latest data suggest that the oceans have been absorbing a whole lot more heat than we thought and 2021 set a new high water temperature, despite being a La Nina year:

I'm not an apocalyptarian and I have not the slightest doubt that Homo sapiens will survive, no matter what kind of climate chaos we create. We've lived through glaciations and interglacials before and we adapted. In fact, you could say that, as a species, adaptation is our super-power. The wheels have already been coming off industrial/corporate civilization for some time however, and climate chaos is simply the cliff at the end of this civilization's potholed road. I fully expect the powers that be to drive us off at full speed, ala Thelma and Louise. By that I mean I see no significant, voluntary reduction in the use of fossil fuels until there simply is no more available at any price.