Scientists Report on Earth’s Fever, and Thawing Permafrost in the Too-Near Future

Image showing Kevin Schaefer's research team drilling for permafrost cores on Alaska's North Slope.

Kevin Schaefer's research team drills for permafrost cores on Alaska's North Slope. New findings by the researchers indicate permafrost in Earth's frozen regions is readying to release vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, increasing carbon dioxide levels. —Credit: Kevin Schaefer, NSIDC/University of Colorado at Boulder.

There’s some seriously bad news on the climate change front. We’ve heard warnings for years about the effects that human activities are having on the Earth, and recommendations for reducing negative impacts. Now there’s a jarring report about permafrost.

The bottom line: An upcoming thaw in the Arctic may be irreversible in less than 20 years without major cuts in the world’s use of fossil fuels. This thaw would push global temperatures several degrees higher, and make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. Think about that the next time you fill up your car or turn on the light switch.

The news, published by Inter Press Service news agency, quotes Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. Schaefer tells IPS we’re 15- 20 years from a “starting point,” when the Arctic permafrost begins to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide and methane from long-frozen plant material and triggering a feedback that will amplify current warming rates.

The study was published in the meteorological journal Tellus. Scientific American also has covered the report, under the headline “Permafrost Meltdown May Herald Climate Catastrophe.”

This is sobering information. And Schaefer says the predictions are conservative, in that the model used only measured carbon dioxide, and not methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. The team in Boulder is working on estimating methane emissions as the next phase of its study.

You can find more information on the research, “Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming,” from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

This report is due to have an impact on international strategies to reduce climate change. They call it permafrost for a reason: it’s supposed to stay frozen.

“If we want to hit a target carbon concentration, then we have to reduce fossil fuel emissions that much lower than previously calculated to account for this additional carbon from the permafrost,” Schaefer said in a statement. “Otherwise we will end up with a warmer Earth than we want.”