Large-Scale Permafrost Thawing

Robert offers the reader multiple sources of evidence regarding the nature of large-scale permafrost thawing including the impact of the release of greenhouse gases and the potential for a feedback loop.


Large-Scale Permafrost Thawing

Twenty-five percent (25%) of the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost. By all appearances, it is melting well beyond natural background rates, in fact, substantially!

Making matters much, much worse, new research has identified past warming events of large-scale permafrost thaw in the Arctic that may be analogous to today, thus spotting a parallel problem of large-scale thawing accompanied by massively excessive carbon emissions spewing into the atmosphere, like there’s no tomorrow.

Permafrost thawing is not, at all times, simply “thawing.”

Of course, as a standalone, the word “thawing” implies a rather evenly keeled methodical process without any specific definition of scale. But, there’s thawing, and then, there’s “large-scale thawing,” which is kinda like turning loose a behemoth. The results are never pretty.

As global warming powers up, like it’s doing now, it has a penchant for finding enormous spans of frozen mud and silt filled with iced-species in quasi-permanent frozen states known as permafrost. As it melts, it’s full of surprises, some interesting, as well as some that are horribly dangerous, for example, emitting huge quantities of carbon, thus kicking into high gear some level of runaway global warming that threatens to wipeout agriculture.

As a matter of fact, according to the research, no more than a few degrees of warming, only a few, can trigger abrupt thaws of vast frozen land thereby releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases as a product of collapsing landscapes, and it feeds upon itself. Indeed, the research effort identified “surges in greenhouse gas emissions… on a massive scale,” Ibid.

The study suggests that massive permafrost ecosystem thawing is subject to indeterminate timing sequences, but it’s armed with a “sensitive trigger” abruptly altering the landscape in massive fashion.

In short, an event could arise out of the blue. It’s well known that Arctic permafrost holds considerably more carbon captured in a frozen state than has already been emitted into the atmosphere.

Already, over just the past two years, other field studies have shown instances where thawing permafrost is 70 years ahead of scientists’ models, prompting the thought that thawing may be cranking up even as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fails to anticipate it.

After all, permafrost is not included in the IPCC’s carbon budget, meaning signatories to the Paris accord of 2015 will need to recalculate their quest to save the world from too much carbon emitting too fast for any kind of smooth functionality of the planet’s climate system. In turn, it undoubtedly negatively impacts the support, or lack thereof, for food-growing regions, which could actually collapse, similar to cascading dominos. Poof!

In the Canadian High Arctic: “Observed maximum thaw depths at our sites are already exceeding those projected to occur by 2090.

According to Susan Natali of Woods Hole Research Center (Massachusetts) the Arctic has already transformed from a carbon sink to a carbon emitter: “Given that the Arctic has been taking up carbon for tens of thousands of years, this shift to a carbon source is important because it highlights a new dynamic in the functioning of the Earth System.”

A 14-year study referenced by Dr. Natali shows annualized 1.66 gigatonnes CO2 emitted from the Arctic versus 1.03 gigatonnes absorbed, a major turning point in paleoclimate history.

A chilling turn for the worse that threatens 10,000 years of our wonderful Holocene era “not too hot, not too cold.” Alas, that spectacular Goldilocks life of perfection is rapidly becoming a remembrance of the past.

Additionally, according to Vladimir Romanovsky – Permafrost Laboratory, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) there are definitive geophysical signs of permafrost that survived thousands of years now starting to thaw. As stated by Romanovsky: “The new research is yet more evidence that the amplified warming in the Arctic can release carbon at a massive scale.”

Nobody knows how soon such an event will break loose in earnest, but global warming has already penetrated the upper permafrost layers, as cliffs of coastal permafrost are collapsing at an accelerating rate.

In short, the current news about thawing/collapsing permafrost is decidedly negative and a threat to life, as we know it.

The Martens’ study conclusively states: “The results from this study on large-scale OC remobilization from permafrost are consistent with a growing set of observational records from the Arctic Ocean and provide support for modeling studies that simulated large injections of CO2 into the atmosphere during deglaciation. This demonstrates that Arctic warming by only a few degrees may suffice to abruptly activate large-scale permafrost thawing, indicating a sensitive trigger for a threshold-like permafrost climate change feedback.”

Thus, as the Holocene era wanes right before humanity’s eyes, the Anthropocene, the age of humans, stands on the world stage all alone with its own shadow and with ever fewer, and fewer, and fewer vertebrates roaming amongst fields of scorched, blackened plant life. What, or who, will it eat?

According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and world-renowned biologist E.O. Wilson:

If we choose the path of destruction, the planet will continue to descend irreversibly into the Anthropocene Epoch, the biologically final age in which the planet exists almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves.


You can access the full article in its original form here:

Large-Scale Permafrost Thawing

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Large-Scale Permafrost Thawing”

  1. There is nothing new about any of this except possibly for some technicalities. I think that we’ve passed the point of no return on this issue, probably 10-15 years ago. Scientists continually moved the date — by which human emissions of unnatural (industrial) greenhouse gases must be eliminated or at least greatly reduced — forward as each date approached, and this has been going on for a while.

    Human damage to the Earth ever since agriculture is immense and just getting worse each day. Except for a few radical environmentalists, people living naturally who have their habitats and ecosystems destroyed by modern humans, and scientists in certain fields, people don’t realize this because changes come slowly, because people are born into already destroyed ecosystems and therefore think that’s normal, and because modern humans are so disconnected from the natural world that they barely notice it if they notice it at all. Specifically as to global warming/climate change, I’ve noticed huge increases in temperatures where I live, and I’ve only been living here for 37 years. I also noticed 15-20 years ago that our once cloudless summer skies (once the ocean fog burns off) now often have clouds, which must be another symptom of this problem, that there is less summer ocean fog (a cooling feature) than there was when I moved here, and that summer heat waves occur far more frequently. The thing is, the global warming/climate change problems that we see on the ground occur 50 years AFTER the air pollution that caused them.

    The point is that global warming/climate change is very far along and is probably unstoppable at this point. This is not to say that we shouldn’t do everything we can to reverse the damage that humans do to our planet, because we should; never give up hope because you never know what might happen if you keep trying! However, as opposed to hope, the realistic expectations are not good.

  2. It’s unfortunate that Hunziker never bothers to mention the mechanics of methane emissions, which are more than 20x as destructive as CO2 — and that once the “trigger” is pulled that would release all the methane stored in the Arctic, global warming will accelerate exponentially and irreversibly, and most life above the microbial level will quickly become unlikely, if not impossible.

    Such a doomsday scenario is not just a possibility in the distant future. It is almost certain to occur, as temperatures continue to rise. And it could happen as soon as today. Indeed, it is no less serious a possibility than if humanity were a bunch of unattended toddlers, confined to a room full of hand grenades, with pins that are hanging by a thread.

    If destruction of the planet were not the deliberate goal of civilization (i.e., if we had not already been driven insane by capitalism’s “growth-development-progress-profit” mania), we would have taken drastic measures to stop it years ago. And by “drastic,” I don’t mean global adoption of some charade like the “Green New Deal.”

    What is required is an international imperative to immediately ban most of today’s industries, employ millions of people to plant trillions of trees, convert all agriculture to permaculture, and return to the subsistence economy we abandoned, when we began taking more from Nature than we gave back.

    This would also require systematic depopulation, since we defied the math, and bred our way to at least ten times the number of people Earth can sustain. If we were truly intelligent, forced population controls could be avoided, by a fast emerging awareness that we’re now in survival mode, where dreams of “more” (in terms of both human numbers and “stuff”) are a thing of the past. When this happens among other animals, fertility rates plunge naturally. But whether humans are that smart is another matter, since other animals don’t delude themselves with rationalizations.

    That’s the kind of crisis we face. But we remain largely in denial. We’re too intoxicated with myths of human supremacy to realize that treating the planet as a business resource instead of an ecosystem (and human life as a right, rather than a privilege) are crimes with a built-in death penalty.

    Industrialism is a crime against Nature. And despite its illusory goal of “a better life,” it is a crime infinitely worse than the Holocaust. We’re more subtle than Hitler in our methods, of course, and much better at making our atrocities appear necessary — for awhile. But the chickens have come home to roost.

    You can’t hide a mass extinction like a gas chamber. And though the perpetrators may look friendlier than the Nazis (and harder to pick out, as we gaze into the mirror), Nature’s justice is even less forgiving than the Nuremberg trials. It kills off its violators automatically.

    We have a last chance to escape that justice. But it is a hard choice, and one we seem unlikely, as a group, to make. Regrettably, it still appears to be in the immediate self-interest of most of us to deny reality, hope that a full accounting will pass to the next generation, and pretend that the technology that brought us here will somehow magically save us.

    That’s why our political leaders pass off the hard choices to a future election, corporate executives defer sanity to another year’s board of directors, and the average Joe (one of whom is even running for president!) tells himself and the rest of us that business as usual only needs a few tweaks.

    We’ve dug ourselves such a deep psychological hole, collective suicide now looks easier than doing the right thing.

    For years, I wondered if I were the only one to have thought that maybe the reason SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) hasn’t found any signals from other civilizations is that industrial development on any planet happens in much the same way. They accelerate their development with something like fossil fuels. And, in their genius, they forget the math of sustainability, and destroy themselves before they attract any interstellar attention.

    Only recently did I learn that this is a common suspicion among astronomers. They just keep it to themselves, so as to give their field of science a more optimistic image. We humans are good at that.

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