Arctic Permafrost Is Melting So Fast That Scientists Are Losing Their Equipment

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In some parts of the Canadian Arctic, permafrost is thawing so rapidly that it’s swallowing up scientific equipment put in place to study it, the CBC reports.

“The ground thaws and swallows it,” said Merritt Turetsky, a University of Guelph biologist. “We’ve put cameras in the ground, we’ve put temperature equipment in the ground, and it gets flooded. It often happens so fast we can’t get out there and rescue it. We’ve lost dozens of field sites. We were collecting data on a forest and all of a sudden it’s a lake.”

Turetsky says that the unexpectedly rapid thaw could severely increase the levels of greenhouse gases, which can be released by ancient plants and animals frozen into the tundra.

Scientists have long understood that the belts of frozen soil that lay beneath much of the northern part of the planet have started to thaw as the Arctic gets warmer. When that happens, greenhouse gases like organic carbon from long-deceased plants and animals begin to thaw and decompose.

Turetsky’s latest revelations, which were just published in the scientific journal Nature, are based on analysis of permafrost thaw across the Arctic and its potential impact on attempts to limit the release of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

While it is true that the accelerated release of such gases could ultimately have an impact on global climate, Turetsky clarified that the effects would not be immediate. Despite the surprising speed of the thaw, she points out that it will take a number of decades before the extra release of carbon begins to influence the climate.

“We’ve got a bit of time,” she added.

Of more immediate concern is the fact that Turetsky and her colleagues continue to see their scientific equipment sucked into the murky ground as a result of the quick thawing. While thawing used to occur at a rate of just a few inches a year, they are now seeing several yards of soil destabilizing within a matter of days.

The results can be small, such as a sunken camera which was once on firm ground. They can also be geographically substantial, with entire landscapes collapsing into sinkholes or hillsides sliding away to expose once protected layers of deep permafrost.

“Permafrost at [that] depth, even 100 years from now, probably would still be protected in the soil,” Turetsky said. “Except here comes this really crazy liquefication where this abrupt thaw really churns up this stuff.”