The climate-driven collapse of Canada’s Arctic permafrost is much more widespread than previously thought, according to new research that presents a dire picture of the changing northern landscape. The study maps an unprecedented area of permafrost that is poised to thaw, threatening local communities and infrastructure, and may speed up global warming.
From Siberia to Canada, giant craters and canyons are opening in the Arctic permafrost, the result of climate change in the north. Now for the first time, scientists have mapped the permafrost thaw across a huge swath of the Canadian north — a 1.27 million square kilometre region from the Yukon to Nunavut.
“The intensity of the changes that we’re starting to see haven’t been seen for thousands of years,” the paper’s lead author Steve Kokelj told VICE News over the phone from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. “It’s the first time that disturbance over this large of a landmass has been mapped, and that a scientific rationale was provided for why the hotspots are where they are.”
Scientists fear this process will also release stored methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Permafrost thaw could trigger what some have dubbed “catastrophic climate change,” a cyclical process in which the earth’s warming releases stored greenhouse gases, further warming the earth.
Permafrost is ground that is frozen year round. The further north you go, the greater amount of the landscape sits atop permafrost. Once you’re far enough north, it forms the foundation for the entire landscape, other than bodies of water. In Canada’s northwest, the permafrost is at least 10,000 years old, and it can be hundreds of metres thick.
“It’s the glue that holds the land together,” Kokelj says.
On top of the permafrost sit ecosystems, cities, roads, pipelines, and traditional Indigenous hunting and trapping territories.
In many parts of Canada’s north, the permafrost contains large volumes of ice. For thousands of years, the landscape has enjoyed a cold climate that keeps it intact. But now a warming climate is thawing the permafrost and melting the ice that’s trapped inside, resulting in the collapse of the land.
“It’s the glue that holds the land together.”
In the future, Kokelj predicts the thaw of organic materials and sediments could change water chemistry, and could alter the landscape for communities in the north, especially Fort McPherson, Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik, which sit in hot spot areas. Permafrost thaw will affect not only people in northern Canada but also millions of people across the Arctic, co-author Trevor Lantz added.
Kokelj calls the type of collapse his team studied “disturbances” or “slumps.” They start as a little nick in the side of a stream or a hill exposing the ice underneath. The sun and rain melt the exposed ice, and the disturbance grows and grows, consuming the land around it. The rate of this thaw and collapse in increasing, and the number of these disturbances is also increasing, his team found.
“And what we’re seeing now in the landscape in the western Arctic, and we’ve studied these for a number of years, is that some of these features now can consume tens of hectares of area, and over a span of decades they can displace millions of cubic metres of materials down slope, so they’re really big,” Kokelj says.
Polar regions are warming faster than any other region on earth, and Canada isn’t the only place that’s seeing permafrost collapse. In northern Russia, buildings are sinking and cracking as the permafrost beneath them thaws. And seven massive craters with diameters as wide as one kilometre have opened up in Siberia.