There is not much talk about permafrost, despite its enormous size and importance. To give you an idea, these ice-free frozen regions occupy a quarter of the Earth’s soils. The name was coined in 1943 by S. W. Müller and is derived from “permanent” and “frost” words, that is, permanently frozen. Permafrost thickness can vary from a few meters to several hundred meters deep. Its function in nature is to serve as large deposits of carbon and prevent it from rising to the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Permafrost is located mainly in the northern hemisphere in the tundra and taiga.
The tundra is one of the coldest biomes on the planet, which has been described as a treeless plain or frozen desert all of the year. It is characterized by having a frozen subsoil, with muddy surfaces covered with mosses and lichens. The tundra is located mainly in the boreal hemisphere, in northern Russia, Alaska, northern Canada, southern Greenland and on the Arctic coast of Europe.
The taiga is also a biome, with huge coniferous forest formations, being the largest forest mass on the planet. In this case the ground can freeze during the winter, but the summer months are warm enough for the surface to thaw, although the deeper parts remain frozen. The taiga is found in northern Russia, including Siberia, northern Europe, in the Hudson Bay, northern Canada, and Alaska.
In the southern hemisphere, permafrost is scarce and is found only on the Georgia and Sandwich Islands.
In the case of Russia, it is important to note that almost two-thirds of its territory sits on permafrost areas. Many Russian cities and towns are built on these unstable soils, although only four percent of the population lives on them.
The role of permafrost soils in nature
Permafrost soils are large sinks of organic carbon accumulated underground over millions of years. They can be imagined as huge thermostats that regulate the Earth’s climate. Permafrost acts as a seal that prevents carbon from escaping underground. Experts estimate that there is around 1.7 billion tons of carbon stored under permafrost. This figure represents about twice the total carbon in the atmosphere.
When the soil remains frozen the carbon is inactive, but when the permafrost thaws the decomposition of the organic matter can be activated aggressively. In these soils there are certain classes of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which have survived for millions of years in a state of hibernation. Dark, oxygen-deprived, and extremely cold environments made this possible. These microorganisms when activated can convert carbon into carbon dioxide (CO2).
With the constant increase in temperature on Earth there is the danger that the permafrost seals will break and release CO2 into the atmosphere, and to a lesser extent methane. This would increase the greenhouse effect of the Earth and consequently the global temperature.
Unlike in warmer latitudes, where microorganisms in the soil constantly break down plant matter and release carbon gradually into the atmosphere, the frozen remains of ancient plant life have been preserved in Arctic soils.
The case of Siberia
During this year 2020 Siberia is experiencing temperatures that have set new records. The warm environment is causing forest fires to increase in some regions. As a consequence, the permafrost is thawing at a higher rate than estimated.
According to the Washington Post, “In Siberia and across much of the Arctic, profound changes are unfolding more rapidly than scientists anticipated only a few years ago. Shifts that once seemed decades away are happening now, with potentially global implications.”
“Vladimir Romanovsky, a researcher at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said the pace, severity and extent of the changes are surprising even to many researchers who study the region for a living. Predictions for how quickly the Arctic would warm that once seemed extreme –underestimate what is going on in reality– he said. The temperatures occurring in the High Arctic during the past 15 years were not predicted to occur for 70 more years, he said.”
On the other hand, National Geographic reported: “This month’s (June, 2020) super-hot day emerged from a potent mix of factors. First, climate change nudged base temperatures up. Then, western Siberia experienced one of its hottest-ever spring seasons, according to climate scientists at the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. Since December, air temperatures in the region have averaged nearly 11°F (6°C) above the average seen between 1979 and 2019. The high heat is also likely well above the average seen
in any similar six-month stretch going back to 1880…”
The UN, on 06/20/2020, titled on its page: “An extreme heat wave affects the Arctic with a possible record temperature of up to 38 ° C and raging fires.”
The situation described here is serious. But it could be less serious if a several activities that affect the increase in temperature on the planet were reduced in a reasonable term. Among them: reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by means of transport and industry. Stop investing in exploration and production of new oil fields. Abandon the use of coal in electricity generation.
Likewise, deforestation of forests should be drastically reduced. The massive felling of trees is one of the main factors that increase global warming. The last five decades (1970-2020) indicate that it is more difficult to eradicate or regulate this practice than to replace the traditional vehicles with electromobility or to replace electricity generation through coal with solar energy or wind energy.
The Deforestation-fires-drought-global warming-deforestation cycle is a perverse cycle that every time it gives a new turn of the screw worsens the conditions of the planet. The perverse cycle has become unstoppable since the 1970s, the decade of hyper-acceleration, as some experts have called it. Since then, hostile deforestation of the most important forests on Earth began. For now, there is no indication that systematic logging can be stopped.
The perverse cycle of deforestation must be stopped if we do not want to see unthinkable temperatures in the next twenty years and the melting of permafrost seals. This is of vital importance for the survival of the human species and of the other species with which we share this wonderful planet.
Sandor A. Gerendas-Kiss