Rising permafrost temperatures could have devasting environmental consequences. UBC MICROMETEOROLOGY/CC FLICKR

Stepping out onto the sidewalk from Robarts Library, it’s obvious that winter is in full swing. The air has gone cold, turning that pleasant fall nip into a winter bite. And although it would seem that the freeze is inescapable, not all temperatures are dropping.

Despite the frigid weather, global warming is still in effect. Since 1975, average global temperatures have been increasing at a rate of roughly 0.15–0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, prompting consequences such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, disappearing Arctic ice, and severe droughts and floods.

Another major unseen consequence of this climb lies deep beneath the tundra soil. The frozen expanse known as permafrost is beginning to thaw.

According to Dr. William Gough, a climate change researcher at UTSC, the thawing process occurs annually. “The surface area actually thaws and then refreezes and thaws… and that’s called the active layer.” The active layer supports vegetation and wildlife and acts as a buffer for the area underneath, allowing it to stay frozen even during the summer.

This subsurface expanse is called permafrost, soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years, though it can be thousands of years old.

Although associated with the frosty expanse of the Arctic Circle, variations of permafrost can be found in in almost all provinces and territories with the exceptions of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Approximately 40–50 per cent of Canada is underlain with permafrost.

Gough studies the effects of permafrost shrinkage along the James Bay coastline in Northern Ontario, searching to see if permafrost is still present in the region.

Due to the loss of snow and ice caused by the warming, the darker ground absorbs more solar energy, resulting in a heated active layer that no longer protects the permafrost. The amount of permafrost decreases as the soil thaws, and eventually the layers collapse.

From 2007–2016, permafrost temperatures were found to have risen approximately 0.29 degrees. This has already started to have lasting consequences.

In the Sakha Republic in Russia, the ground has begun to collapse under itself, resulting in a half-mile-long opening in the ground known as the Batagaika Crater. Measurements of the crater have indicated that it has doubled in size within the past five years.

The Batagaika Crater “was a disturbed system. So they had taken down a bunch of trees that reduced the amount of shade and so the surface warmed and then there was a positive feedback and the crater formed,” said Gough.

“It illustrated how fragile the system is…that’s an analogue to much of what the climate system may be experiencing where it’s fragile in the sense that if you push it, it will sort of gallop off into a positive feedback.”

As the ground begins to warm, large volumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon would be released as organic material stored within the permafrost begins to decay, accumulating in the atmosphere and accelerating the pace of climate change.

Neurotoxins such as anthrax and methylmercury are emerging from the mushy soils as predicted in a 2011 study, five years before the 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia. These toxins have the potential to spread and cause outbreaks for wildlife and eventually humans.

Across the land, tilting forests, thaw pools, collapsing craters, and landslides pockmark the regions where permafrost has begun to disappear, turning an invisible phenomenon into a very visible problem. Structural integrity and storage of organic material are benefits of permafrost, which have started to unravel as temperatures increase.

In addition to the devastating environmental effects, these consequences have also found their way into the lives of people living in the affected regions. The daily bustle of life also results in the gradual heating of the once permanently frozen soil beneath, causing buildings to lean, roads to buckle, and slopes to fail.

“Historically, you can build on permafrost. What you do is you put a pylon down and the pylon… sits on that piece of permafrost below, which is always frozen,” said Gough. “Now, the problem with global warming is that the active layer is getting deeper so… the foundation of the pylon is lost because then it’s just dangling in air and so the building will sink or shift…It’s been engineered for a certain active layer depth.”

In some cases, such as for the inhabitants of Shishmaref, Alaska, the loss of permafrost will result in complete collapse of the soil, leading to an annual seven-metre recession of the shoreline and the evacuation of a town that can no longer be occupied.

Currently, there are plans to slow the consequences of climate change. Governments entered into the Paris Agreement in 2016, pledging to limit the global average temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

However, the following year, a 2017 United Nations report indicated that if newer, more rigorous carbon goals aren’t set by governments by 2020, we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

At the local level, there are attempts to curb the thaw of permafrost in human inhabited regions. During the construction of the Qinghai–Xizang Railway, a transport corridor running across the Tibetan Plateau, crushed rock served as an aid to lower the ground temperature and prevent the permafrost from thawing and, in some cases, increase the height at which permafrost occurs. Similar designs for the stilts that prop up buildings use convection currents to bring cooler air down into the ground to maintain the freezing temperatures.

However, these projects require frequent monitoring, which may make them costlier in more ways than one. Research done at McMaster University has also found that peat and additional forest cover can aid in keeping temperatures lowered; however, this can increase the likelihood of fires, which will in turn cause warming of the ground.

Despite these gloomy trends, people may start moving into these vulnerable permafrost regions, not for prevention, but for gain. At the direction of the Trump administration, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is being auctioned off in the largest lease sale of public land in the history of the United States.

Fossil fuel companies are being given access to land, some of which is environmentally sensitive, to extract the potentially recoverable 89.9 billion barrels of oil and 1,668.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas present in the Arctic regions.

Canada’s northern territorial governments and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation are also looking to make use of the resources as the Trudeau government’s 2016 ban on Arctic drilling is up for review in 2021. While there are obvious social benefits for the communities involved, there may be some long-term consequences to be mindful of.

“There’s a range of potential disasters and impacts… It’s really what kind of infrastructure you’re bringing into an area that’s been sort of pristine [that’s] been used for many generations by a native population. We know what an urban structure does… it totally and radically changes the nature of the environment,” said Gough. “So I worry, and I worry about the infrastructure that’s needed to be there to do the drilling.”

He stressed the environmental consequences. “You only have to only see one oil spill to see how devastating it is on a local level. The Arctic ecosystem is a fragile one, it doesn’t have a lot of redundancies… [the ecosystem] is much more sensitive to change and so you do something devastating, it takes a long time to recover.”

And although living in southern Ontario may protect us from the physical consequences of permafrost, we are not exempt from the financial consequences. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the thawing permafrost will result in economic impacts that total $43 trillion USD, increasing the total cost of climate change to $398 trillion USD, a 13 per cent increase.

But perhaps it is best not to think of these consequences in terms of money. Our economy can be revived, but our environment can’t. Permafrost has many roles, not only for wildlife, but also for the people who live in surrounding areas. For some, such as Indigenous peoples, leaving their traditional land as it breaks down is not an option.

We can’t abandon a sinking ship when there are no lifeboats to separate us from the frigid water below. Combatting climate change is a decision made by governments and the people who vote for them.

It’s a choice that we must make.

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