Category Archives: Enviroment

Regime Shift for Permafrost Arctic Permafrost Thawing

Nowhere is the climate changing faster than in the Arctic. The region is warming at about twice the rate of the global average, with atmospheric temperature anomalies as much as 13 degrees Fahrenheit above normal reported in January.

Permafrost becomes especially vulnerable to these rapid changes, creating land subsidence, habitat change, and a potentially catastrophic release of carbon and methane as the once-frozen organic matter decomposes.

Arctic permafrost: the big thaw

Much of the terrestrial Arctic permafrost currently remains well below freezing.  At current rates of warming, scientists estimate it could take another 70 years for these frozen soils to fully melt.

Depending on the emissions scenario over the coming decades, researchers project anywhere from a 30 to 70 percent decline in near-surface permafrost by the end of the century. Our current emissions trajectory being the high end of that estimate, according to research cited Adam Wernick in a  Public Radio International article:

If 70 percent of the permafrost thaws, scientists expect to lose 130 to 160 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of this century,” writes Adam Wernick. “To put that in perspective, in 2013 the United States emitted 1.4 billion tons of carbon from fossil fuel combustion and cement production.

Thawing permafrost represents a potential “tipping point” for runaway climate change. As more permafrost melts, more methane and CO2 are released into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures, causing more permafrost to melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses –  a relatively sudden and abrupt oscillation into a self-amplifying feedback loop.

A “regime change” for permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes

A study accepted for publication this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters indicates an ongoing “regime shift” is underway in sub-lake permafrost. The soil below these shallow Arctic lakes is naturally warmer and is already thawing, as the following press release from the American Geophysical Union explains:

New research shows permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes is thawing as a result of changing winter climate.

Joint Release:

  • American Geophysical Union
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • U.S. Geological Survey

16 June 2016

Warmer winters combined with an increase in snowfall during the last 30 years have limited the growth of seasonal lake ice. In response, lakebed temperatures of Arctic lakes less than 1 meter (3 feet) deep have warmed by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) during the past three decades, and during five of the last seven years, the mean annual lakebed temperature has been above freezing.

These rates of warming are similar to those observed in terrestrial permafrost, yet those soils are still well below freezing and thaw is not expected for at least another 70 years. However, a regime shift in lake ice is leading to sub-lake permafrost thaw now.

Since permafrost underneath lakes is generally warmer than the surrounding terrestrial permafrost, rising temperatures in the lakebeds make permafrost thaw sooner than beneath surrounding dry land. These lakes may cover 20 to 40 percent of the landscape in vast areas of Arctic lowlands.

“During the 1970s, late winter lake ice thickness measurements commonly exceeded 2 meters (6.5 feet) in northern Alaska. Such thick ice growth helps to limit sub-lake permafrost thaw by freezing the sediments solid each winter. However, during winter field surveys over the last decade, lake ice has typically only grown to 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick, and has been as thin as 1.2 meters (4 feet),” said Christopher Arp, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Water and Environmental Research Center and lead author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

These drastic reductions in lake ice, caused by changes in winter climate, are the primary reason that shallow lakebed temperatures are warming and the permafrost below them is thawing.

Interactions and feedbacks among climate, permafrost, and hydrology underscore the complexity of forecasting change in the Arctic. For example, thinner lake ice may help fish overwintering, or it may help the oil industry since they need lake water to build winter ice roads. However, sub-lake permafrost thaw will likely unlock a portion of the permafrost carbon pool and potentially release this carbon in the form of greenhouse gasses.

These findings also highlight the importance of conducting winter fieldwork in the Arctic.

“Arctic lakes and ponds are typically ice covered for nine months of the year, but research on them typically occurs during the short Arctic summer. To more fully understand Arctic lake dynamics and to document the changes we have observed requires also doing fieldwork under often harsh conditions during the cold and dark arctic winter,” said Benjamin Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage and co-author of the new study.

“With further thawing of sub-lake permafrost there is a good chance that the ground will subside, increasing the lake depth and accelerating further permafrost thawing. In contrast, the warming on the land may increase the protective vegetation layer and delay thawing of permafrost outside of lakes,” said Vladimir Romanovsky of the UAF Geophysical Institute and co-author of the new study.

With increasingly warmer and snowier winters yielding thinner lake ice, shallow lakes will likely continue to warm, Arp said.


The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 60,000 members in 139 countries. Join the conversation on FacebookTwitterYouTube, and our other social media channels.


Image credit: Anthony Kendall, courtesy Flickr

Steps on the Road to a Great Transition

Arguably one of the most important things to come out of the COP21 climate talks in Paris last December, aside from the Paris Agreement itself, is the signal sent solidifying the growing shift in the global consciousness. We seek a transformative path forward into the new century. But any desired transformational change requires both the vision for a long term outcome and a mechanism to achieve that outcome in the ongoing grind of our day-to-day reality.

In a  globalized economy powered by fossil fuels embedded in that reality is the expectation of ceaseless energy to drive nearly every aspect of our lives, at least for some of us. The rest must live either in the shadow of the waste and destruction brought as a consequence of a fossil fuel energy economy or start out on their own quest to catch up.  Many suffer. Some resort to violence and anarchy in their desperation.

The Paris Agreement sets in motion a renewed sense of urgency in our aspiration for climate action specifically and a more equitable and sustainable society in general. The more cynical among us might suggest we’ve heard all this before, half-hearted calls to action that bear little change, leaving the rhetoric in the dustbin of broken promises and hardened souls. It’s easy to be cynical.

What is harder is to accept the failures of the past, the circumstances of the present and challenges of the future, and determine that change is not only inevitable, but that we can shape it toward a desired outcome. This is the promise of the Paris Agreement.

Choosing our future scenario

In an essay entitled Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Aheadthree classes of future scenarios are outlined, each with two variants. First is the Conventional Worlds scenario, then Barbarization and finally Great Transitions. Each scenario is characterized respectively by essential continuity, fundamental yet undesirable change and fundamentally favorable social transformation.

The two variants to Conventional Worlds are “market forces” and “policy reform.” Market forces assumes no real deviation from business-as-usual, suggesting an eventual deterioration into one of the two variants of Barbarization, either “fortress world” or complete “breakdown.” On the other hand, the policy reform variant of the Conventional Forces scenario, working in the spirit of Keynes and Bruntland, offers the possibility of progress toward a Great Transition scenario. Here we have an “eco-communalism” or “new sustainability paradigm” worldview.

Some may pine after a world of eco-communalism rooted in “pastoral romance, human goodness and the evil of industrialism,” but the authors suggest the more likely and desirable possibility, given our present situation, is a new sustainability paradigm. This is a world built out of a philosophy of sustainability as progressive global social evolution organized around human solidarity, new values and “the art of living.”

Whether we end up in a scenario of Barbarization or Great Transformation, I argue that one thing is apparent: from our current perspective of Conventional Worlds, we have a choice, even if that choice is making no choice at all – or muddling through, as the authors in the essay define as the last option; simply turning a blind eye to the whole issue of future development. By default that will almost certainly lead to a fortress world or complete breakdown.

Our best choice from here is one of policy reform, defined by growth and environmental equity achieved through stewardship, better technology and management. The framework set in place through the Paris Agreement, as well as the Sustainable Development goals, is the first step toward policy reform in a Conventional World that might lead to the Great Transition of a new sustainability paradigm.

World Bank Group Climate Action Plan: policy reform for favorable transformation?

Earlier this month the World Bank Group announced its Climate Action Plan. The plan builds on the foundation of the Paris Agreement, reinforcing the ambitions of individual countries and the global community toward new policies for every sector of society.

Through capacity building, leveraging resources and creating a framework of transparency, the World Bank’s Climate Action Plan is an example of how we can get from here – a conventional world committed to policy reform – to there – a Great Transformation rooted in human solidarity and global social evolution.

Of course, it can be difficult to hold in our mind’s eye what this transformation will look like, and this is only a small step on the road to get there. But we must look at each step as part of the whole and keep in our hearts and minds the ambition and vision set forth in Paris.

Featured image credit: Stephan Ridgway, courtesy flickr

This post first published in our blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com

Hug a Tree: International Day of Forests

Happy International Day of Forests!

March 21 marks the International Day of Forests (IDF).

The United Nations General Assembly established  IDF on November 28, 2012 as a means of raising awareness of the beauty, importance and plight of the world’s forests.

The history of IDF stretches back to 1971 when the 16th session of the Conference for Food and Agriculture voted to establish an annual “World Forestry Day” every March 21. From 2007 to 2012 the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) convened a series of six Forest Days coinciding with the annual gatherings of the UNFCCC climate conference.

After the International Year of Forests in 2011, the United Nations passed the resolution calling for the International Day of Forests, observed every March 21. The tradition stretches back decades, but today marks the the fourth annual IDF.

Trees are fundamental

One tree can absorb up to 40 pounds of CO2 per year. By the time that tree reaches 40 years old, it could sequester as much as one ton of carbon dioxide. As it takes in the CO2 a large tree provides the daily supply of oxygen for four people.

Trees are an essential component of the earth’s hydrological cycle. That same large tree can lift up to 100 gallons of water out of the ground in a single day and disperse  it into the air.

We depend on trees for everything from fruit, nuts and coffee to food additives for items such as ice cream, chewing gum and much, much more. When you have a headache, take an aspirin, made from Salicylic acid extract from the bark of many types of trees (especially Willows). In total, more than 5000 products are made from trees.

Whether you live in a treeless desert or sprawling urban center; are a wealthy financier working from atop a towering skyscraper or a subsistence farmer working your small plot to eke out a living for your family, or somewhere in between, we are all utterly dependent on healthy forests.

Our modern civilization wouldn’t be possible without the benefit and service of forests, but too often we can’t see the forest for the trees.

As J.P. Kimmins writes in his book Forest Ecology:

“Forests are the evolutionary vessel in which were distilled the origins of the most remarkable of all animals: Homo sapiens. Forests were the habitat of our earliest evolutionary ancestors and have remained an important part of the environment of … the human family tree. The rise and fall of empires, the conquest of nations, and the political, economic, and military power of human societies have been intimately related to the accessibility of forests and/or forest products for most of recent history. Modern humans … still are – and always will remain – dependent on forests for a wide variety of the necessities and pleasures of life as we know it.”
-J.P. Kimmins 2004

Forests cover one-third of the global land mass, are home to more than 80 percent of terrestrial species of plants, animals, and insects. Estimates vary, but there are at least 23,000 varieties of trees in the world, many of which are threatened by deforestation, climate change, expanding wildfire (both in intensity and length of burn season).

In a recent blog post, the Global Trees Campaign stated that half the world’s magnolia species are threatened with extinction in the wild.

Temperate forests across North America suffer from bark beetle infestations exacerbated by warmer winters.

Forests and water

The theme chosen by the UN for IDF this year is forests and water.

We’ve already seen how a single tree acts as an essential part of the hydrological cycle. Forests and water work as an elegant, beautiful system distributing the vital ingredients for life on earth.

The official UN page for the International Day of Forests lists but few of the many different interconnections between forests:

  • Forested watersheds and wetlands supply 75 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater
  • About one-third of the world’s largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from forested protected areas
  • Nearly 80 percent of the world’s population – 8 out of 10 people – is exposed to high levels of threat to water security
  • Improved water resource management can show considerable economic gains
  • Forests act as natural water filters
  • Climate change is altering forests role in water flows and the availability of water resources
  • Forests have a crucial role in building and strengthening resilience

As we look forward to the coming decades and consider how to create a prosperous economy that provides opportunity for all yet maintains a healthy and thriving global environment, it is important to consider what we cherish and protect for future generations.

“In this first year of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the International Day of Forests focuses on their role in supporting water systems… Investing in forests is an insurance policy for the planet.”
-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

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How much do you know about forests and water? Take the quiz and find out!

Featured image credit: seth m, courtesy flickr under creative commons license