Published on 20 May 2019
Ice is without doubt one of the first casualties of climate change, but the effects of our warming world are not only limited to ice melting on Earth’s surface. Ground that has been frozen for thousands of years is also thawing, adding to the climate crisis and causing immediate problems for local communities.
In Earth’s cold regions, much of the sub-surface ground is frozen. Permafrost is frozen soil, rock or sediment – sometimes hundreds of metres thick. To be classified as permafrost, the ground has to have been frozen for at least two years, but much of the sub-surface ground in the polar regions has remained frozen since the last ice age.
Arctic land cover. Image courtesy by ESA
Permafrost holds carbon-based remains of vegetation and animals that froze before decomposition could set in. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds almost double the amount of carbon than is currently in the atmosphere.
When permafrost warms and thaws, it releases methane and carbon dioxide, adding these greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and making global warming even worse.
With permafrost covering about a quarter of the northern hemisphere, extensive thawing could trigger a feedback loop that could potentially turn the Arctic from a carbon sink into a carbon source.