Permafrost

Freddy Brocklehurst is an environmental consultant at Groundsure. In this blog, Freddy discusses permafrost and the effect it may have on climate change. If you have any questions or comments about this blog, you can contact the commercial consultancy team at commercial@groundsure.com.


The threat of thawing permafrost to climate change

As the Earth warms, climate patterns change. Climate change is irreversibly affecting many areas of the globe, one, in particular, being the arctic. This is owing mainly to its vast store of frozen water in the forms of ice, snow, glaciers and frozen ground.4 Frozen ground, or permafrost, comprises 24% of land in the Northern Hemisphere and contains almost twice as much carbon than is presently in the atmosphere.1,3 As temperatures rise, the permafrost melts releasing carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane gas has been proven to be roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.7

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What is permafrost?

Permafrost is found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Alaska and northerly parts of Canada. Permafrost refers to soil or rock that has been frozen all year round for a least 2 years.2 The upper layer of permafrost (active layer) sometimes thaws in the summer months. This layer has been observed to be increasing in size with time, meaning more permafrost is melting each summer. 1

Carbon stores in permafrost

The Arctic tundra contains one-third of the Earth’s soil carbon, stored as frozen organic matter. Under normal climate conditions, the ground remains cold meaning there is a low inertia in terms of the decomposition rate. If the northern latitudes warm significantly (which they are expected to do), the permafrost will thaw allowing the organic matter within the permafrost to decompose. This decomposition will release abundant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere leading experts to predict that the arctic will turn from a carbon sink into a carbon source by the mid-2020s.1,6

It is estimated by researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, that by 2200, 60% of the northern hemisphere permafrost will have melted. This has the potential to release around 190 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere causing an irreversible effect on global warming.4

Methane and Carbon Dioxide

As the ground warms methane will either be directly released into the atmosphere or broken down and released by bacteria as carbon dioxide. If layers of thawed permafrost form between frozen layers then microbial activities can continue through the winter months, creating high volumes of methane from the organic material.1,5

Methane can be present in permafrost as methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are effectively methane gases frozen into ice structures forming under high pressure at very cold temperatures. The layers of methane hydrate can be several hundred of metres thick. It is estimated that there is anything from 7.5 to 400 billion tonnes of methane hydrates in permafrost. 1,5

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What can we do?

Everybody has a carbon footprint and even though it may seem like your everyday choices might not affect the bigger picture of climate change, it’s not true. Each person can be a massive help by adopting a more responsible lifestyle.

Below is a list of 8 easy steps that you can do at home, in the office or in general life to reduce your carbon footprint, help to alleviate climate change and ultimately slow down the rate at which permafrost is thawing.

  1. Reduce, reuse and recycle: reduce your waste by choosing reusable products (sandwich boxes, bags for life etc.) If it can’t be reused then choose products with minimal packaging and recycle whenever possible.
  2. Walk more: Walking instead of driving. Saving one litre of petrol is the equivalent of keeping 20 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere.
  3. Plant trees: Trees absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce.
  4. Eat locally sourced foods: Transporting food across the globe is a massive contributor to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
  5. Save electricity: Turn off all electrical devices when not in use.
  6. Use less hot water: Set your boiler at a lower heat, wash your clothes at a lower temperature, use energy saving settings on the dishwasher etc.
  7. Use less heating and air conditioning: Keeping your house or office 2 degrees lower in the winter or 2 degrees higher in the summer can make a huge difference.
  8. Spread the word: Inform family, friends and colleagues on how they can do their bit to reduce their own carbon footprint. 8

Conclusion

If predictions are correct then it is easy to imagine a disaster scenario with regards to permafrost’s effect on climate change. The most alarming aspect is that as permafrost melts and carbon is released it causes a knock on effect, initiating further warming, thus triggering increased thawing rates and so on. At the present time, even the most extreme climate change models do not incorporate the effects of methane released from melting permafrost, meaning even these models might not be extreme enough. A sharp rise in atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide concentration could set off catastrophic global warming. With all this in mind, it’s now more important than ever to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible, because everyone together can make a real difference.1


Climate change is having an undeniable impact on soil conditions which can cause landslides, fissures and shrinkage, all of which can impact the foundations of your client’s property. Subsidence can be a serious issue for homebuyers, with clay soils alone implicated in £3bn insurance claims over the last 10 years. Subsidence could seriously impact on the insurability of the property in the future; we recommend that a Ground Stability search is undertaken ahead of the purchase. It’s the smart, simple way to be certain.


 

References

  1. Permafrost In a Warming World(2017) Available at: http://1)https://www.wunderground.com/resources/climate/melting_permafrost.asp.
  2. EPA, U. and Division, C.C. (2016)Thawing Permafrost. Available at: https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/kids/impacts/signs/permafrost.html.
  3. Holmes, R. (2013)Methane release from melting permafrost could trigger dangerous global warming. Available at: http://1)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/oct/13/methane-release-from-melting-permafrost-could-trigger-dangerous-global-warming.
  4. National snow and ice data center (2017) Available at: https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/methane.html.
  5. Methane Hydrate(2017) Available at: https://energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/oil-gas-research/methane-hydrate.
  6. Phys (2016)When permafrost melts, what happens to all that stored carbon? Available at: http://phys.org/news/2016-12-permafrost-carbon.html.
  7. (2017). A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327111724.htm
  8. A Better World is possible!. (2017). 8 Easy Ways You Can Stop the Arctic Ice from Melting – Better World International. [online] Available at: https://www.betterworldinternational.org/planet/8-easy-ways-stop-arctic-ice-melting/

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