Arctic Permafrost Is Thawing So Quickly That Massive Sinkholes Are Occurring

Referred to as 'thermokarst,' it is believed scientists are underestimating the effects of thawing permafrost by as much as 50 percent in some areas of the Arctic.

Thermkarst could be underestimated when calculating the result of thawing permafrost in the Arctic
FlorenceD-pix / Pixabay

Referred to as 'thermokarst,' it is believed scientists are underestimating the effects of thawing permafrost by as much as 50 percent in some areas of the Arctic.

According to a new study, many scientists using calculations on the degree of permafrost thawing and the effect of it on the environment may have drastically underestimated their figures, as a worrisome new reaction potentially associated with climate change is being recorded in the Arctic.

According to Wired, massive sinkholes are occurring as permafrost melts at rapid speeds. Called “thermokarst,” the quick onset of melting permafrost sees the surrounding landscape literally sink in on itself. While this is devastating and potentially dangerous, there is another factor that also has cause for concern.

In the Nature Geoscience journal, researchers expressed their concern that rapid thermokarst could lead to a much quicker release of carbon emissions that are linked with climate change. Creating a worrisome perpetual loop, the fast release of carbon caused by decaying matter at the bottom of these sinkholes heats the atmosphere, leading to further permafrost melt, and continuing the cycle.

According to the paper’s lead author, Merritt Turetsky of the University of Guelph and the University of Colorado in Boulder, the impact of this could be currently underestimated by as much as 50 percent.

“The amount of carbon coming off that very narrow amount of abrupt thaw in the landscape, that small area, is still large enough to double the climate consequences and the permafrost carbon feedback,” she said.

“Where permafrost tends to be lake sediment or organic soils, the type of earth material that can hold a lot of water, these are like sponges on the landscape. When you have thaw, we see really dynamic and rapid changes.”

The effects of thermokarst may be underestimated
  FlorenceD-pix / Pixabay

While this seems like dire news, as the paper points out, there is some hope. According to Turetsky, less than 20 percent of permafrost can be considered susceptible to thermokarst. A large majority of permafrost is located over sand or rock, which means that while it melting may be of concern regarding climate change, it will not lead to the sinkholes that result in decaying organic matter required for thermokarst.

These quick-forming sinkholes have been causing all sorts of problems for the scientists involved — including the loss of valuable scientific equipment. As scientists study areas, equipment is often left out to record data. However, when they return to collect the equipment, it is often swallowed up as a result of thermokarst.

Turetsky has found this to be the case when returning to areas for her temperature and methane sensors. While the area may have been a lake prior, everything has now been swallowed as a result of these sinkholes.

It is possible that some of this damage will be reabsorbed when the weather changes in the cooler months and the carbon is covered once more by permafrost. In addition, the sinkhole threat may not impact surrounding populations for many decades to follow. Regardless, the study indicates that the Arctic is in some sort of an “upheaval” that could be a direct result of climate change.