Permafrost: The Northern Hemisphere’s Burping Cow

We normally think of methane as the result of agricultural practices, as cows produce it via bodily processes such as burping, but there is also another culprit behind methane emission. The thawing of permafrost in the northern hemisphere is emitting far more methane into the atmosphere than even cows do, which has contributed to the growing rapidity of global climate change. Examining the environmental circumstances that give rise to this, these implications become alarming — nearly one-fourth of the northern hemisphere is covered by permafrost, permanently frozen land that is filled with woody decay, bones, rocks, moss, and soil, among other things. It lies beneath wetlands, rivers, and in the tundra of Alaska and Siberia. It is packed with carbon, and according to NASA’s Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment, it holds around 227 gigatonnes of carbon, amounting to about one-third of the atmosphere’s current carbon levels. The ground has to remain below zero degrees Celsius for permafrost to exist, but it is currently only one or two degrees below freezing. Thus, the permafrost of the north has begun to thaw, thereby releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion.

The three major greenhouse gases are methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Releasing these greenhouse gases, especially methane, accelerates global climate change. Dr. James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for space studies said, “The increasing greenhouse gases are like a blanket, they reduce the radiation to space, and the warming would then bring the planet back to energy balance except we keep adding more gases to the atmosphere.” Methane is much stronger than carbon dioxide, trapping twenty times the amount of heat. Kevin Schaefer of the National Ice and Snow Data Center said that, “It is like broccoli in your freezer. As long as the broccoli stays in the freezer, it’s going to be ok. But once you take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge, it will thaw out and eventually decay.” This could exceed the amount of greenhouse gases that humans have already emitted into the atmosphere. The permafrost should naturally be colder near the surface, and warmer as you get deeper, but this has reversed, warming at the top. Some of this permafrost has been frozen for thousands of years, and this is the first time it is thawing. Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor at the University of Alaska, predicts that some of this permafrost could be thawed by 2070, because of the change in temperature at the base layer of the ground from -8 to -2 degrees celsius in the past 40 years.

The major issue with the thawing of permafrost is how it speeds up global warming, but some of the other effects include the collapsing of roads and houses; it has already created crater-like sinkholes. It affects the animals, plants, and people around it and will soon affect the earth as a whole. In order to keep the permafrost frozen, Alaska has started insulating its roads with polystyrene underneath the pavement; but that isn’t going to help this problem on a larger scale. Dr. Hansen explained that, “It would take about 600 billion dollars to remove just one year’s worth of emissions.” It is going to be expensive to face issues such as this, yet it is necessary to slow down global climate change.