Arctic Permafrost

WHRC works in places where great stores of terrestrial carbon are at risk, threatening the global climate system and human well-being. The Arctic is such a place.

Locked within the ancient frozen soils, known as permafrost, is more carbon than has been emitted through fossil fuel combustion to date, and more, in fact than is in the atmosphere, including natural and human contributions.

As the Earth continues to warm, these soils thaw, releasing greenhouse gasses—carbon dioxide and methane—into the atmosphere, and accelerating climate change.

The amount and rate of this carbon release will define the Earth’s climate trajectory, yet scientists do not yet know how much, how fast, or at what level of warming carbon emissions will occur. Because of this, release of permafrost carbon is not included in today’s climate models, causing them to tend to underestimate future climate change.

The goal of WHRC’s Arctic Permafrost Program is to identify how much carbon is contained in these frozen soils, how fast emissions are occurring and how these emissions will continue to affect the climate.

Photo by Chris Linder Permafrost has formed over thousands of years and now covers one quarter of land in the Northern Hemisphere. It is comprised of a complex mix of ice, rocks, bones, sand, plant bits, and even whole tree limbs that have been incorporated into soil.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, which will lead to extensive thawing of permafrost. As permafrost thaws, microbes decompose previously frozen organic carbon (dead plant and animal remains), which can release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, creating a “positive feedback loop” of more warming that leads to greater permafrost thaw.

Scientists estimate that within the next century permafrost could decline by up to 50%. As these frozen soils continue to thaw, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to changes in weather patterns, sea levels and agricultural production that could have catastrophic impacts on human populations on a global scale.

DSC00733_sm The Arctic Permafrost Program comprises field expeditions in North America and Siberia to collect observational data and conduct field experiments, and uses satellite data to monitor Arctic climate change on a regional scale.

Our research activities include experimental thawing of permafrost in Alaska, studying fire effects on permafrost carbon vulnerability, watershed-scale efforts to quantify carbon pools and fluxes, and large-scale monitoring of permafrost thaw through changes in stream and river carbon exports.

PCN logo Arctic Permafrost Program scientists are part of the Permafrost Carbon Network, which synthesizes current knowledge of permafrost carbon vulnerability and is working to include permafrost carbon feedbacks into the global climate models used by the international policy community.

Read WHRC’s policy brief: Permafrost and Global Climate Change

DSC00899Key goals of the Arctic Permafrost Program are to train the next generation of arctic researchers and engage and inform the public about the connections between climate change in the Arctic and changes that are occurring across the globe.

WHRC scientists have led efforts to integrate research on permafrost with the training of graduate and undergraduate students through authentic field research experiences and internships. The aim is to provide training in the intellectual processes central to the best science, and develop field, laboratory, remote sensing, and mapping skills that are essential for success in the environmental sciences. In addition, Arctic Program scientists and students reach out to the public through lectures and the development of education materials in collaboration with K-12 teachers and students.


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