While world leaders discuss plans to tackle climate change at the COP26 conference (Glasgow, Scotland), the threat of melting water is not yet taken into account. permafrost A layer of subsoil that is releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere at an unimaginable rate due to global warming.
Permafrost is found in the Arctic, in parts of Russia (Siberia), the United States (Alaska), Canada, and Denmark (Greenland). In fact, it is present in 25% of the soil in the northern hemisphere.
As its name implies, permafrost is a permanently frozen layer that is made up of soil, rocks, sand, and organic matter (plant and animal remains) bound together by ice. In these remains are stored about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, twice what is currently in the atmosphere.
When the temperature rises, the ice melts and causes the upper layer of the soil (abundant in vegetation and soil) to collapse, which is evidenced in huge craters and cracks reported in the region. However, there is another effect that is invisible but much more serious.
As permafrost thaws, microbes begin to break down organic debris, releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and methane (CH4). The latter is “30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas,” Julian Murton, professor of Permafrost Science at the University of Sussex (England), tells the BBC.
These greenhouse gases permeate the atmosphere and cause the planet’s temperature to rise even more. Then the process is repeated: more heat, more thawed permafrost, more gases in the atmosphere, and again more heat. A terrible vicious cycle that is increasingly worrying.
Therefore, the thawing of permafrost is considered by scientists a climate “time bomb”.
According to a report by the newspaper El País, Anna Kurbatova, professor of Ecology at RUDN University (Russia), the megadepression – a huge crater in the permafrost – about 50 kilometers from Batagai, in the Republic of Sajá, is an indicator of what happens around the world.
This misfortune of nature represents the vulnerability of the Arctic, “a territory where temperatures have shot up to two and three times faster than the world average during the last 30 years.”
Permafrost could have a point of no return, that is, a moment in time when humans run out of tools to save it. This was stated by the members of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who pointed to 2100.
“Evidence suggests that 5% to 15% of the vast soil carbon pool stored in northern permafrost ecosystems could be emitted as greenhouse gases by 2100 under the current trajectory of global warming,” it was explained, emphasizing the idea, in an article in the journal Nature Geoscience published on July 1, 2019.
Gustaf Hugelius, an expert on carbon and permafrost cycles at Stockholm University, warned, according to an AFP report, that if all the concentrated carbon escaped, it would triple the concentration of that gas in the atmosphere. This puts nearby ecosystems under the rifle and subsequently others.
British scientist Sarah Chadburn stated in 2017 that if the temperature rises to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age average 30% of permafrost will disappear.
For his part, Julian Murton reveals that the constant variability of the permafrost makes it difficult for the climatic observations of the land and the air to unify, a difficulty added to the fact that the layers are in remote and cold areas to carry research equipment.
Still, consider an optimistic scenario: remember that the layer has already “survived” other periods of warming.