22 November 2017
The EU project Nunataryuk will determine the effects of permafrost thaw on Earth’s coldest shorelines
Permafrost makes up a quarter of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere. Climate change means that Arctic coasts are thawing and eroding at an ever greater pace, releasing additional greenhouse gases. A large EU project, coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), is now exploring the consequences for the global climate and for the people living in the Arctic. But that’s not all: working together with residents of the Arctic region, the researchers will also co-design strategies for the future in order to cope with ongoing climate change.
The sheer size of permafrost regions makes them a global issue. A quarter of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere consists of permafrost soils, which have been frozen solid for thousands of years. A third of the world’s coastlines are permafrost and span Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Siberia. Researchers have known for years that the permafrost is thawing ever more rapidly due to climate change. Yet we still don’t know exactly what consequences this will have for the global climate, or for the people living there. In the EU project Nunataryuk, experts from 27 research institutions will spend the next five years intensively answering this research question and determining the role of permafrost coastlines in the Earth’s climate system.
Nunataryuk is unique because the scientists collaborate closely with local communities to determine how they can best adapt to thawing permafrost. “What makes the project stand out is the fact that we’ll study both the global and the local impacts of this thawing, with co-designed projects in local communities,” says AWI geoscientist Hugues Lantuit, the project’s coordinator.
Permafrost soils contain ancient, frozen organic matter. If permafrost begins to thaw, bacteria break down the organic matter, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. This leads to greater warming of the Earth’s climate. How much warming is unclear, because many of the processes associated with permafrost thaw are not understood. In climate models, thawing permafrost has only been partly included. “The models view the permafrost as a uniform field, thawing from the top down, but that’s too simple,” Lantuit explains. “For example, on coastlines, permafrost is increasingly crumbling due to the effects of waves. The Arctic coastline is now receding by more than half a metre every year. The models don’t take this into account.” In addition, the thawed soil, together with all of its carbon and nutrients, is now increasingly being transported to the Arctic Ocean by rivers and streams. This factor isn’t reflected, either.
There’s yet another major question mark: the Arctic is home to large permafrost beneath the ocean floor. And we essentially have no idea how rapidly these areas thaw in the wake of climate change. “In the project, we will for the first time feed a comprehensive map of this area into climate models,” says Lantuit. To gauge how much greenhouse gas is being released by coastal areas and the seafloor, aeroplane and helicopter flights will be used to measure the carbon dioxide and methane levels in the air. Lantuit adds: “Only then will the climate models be able to better estimate the thawing’s effects on the Earth’s climate. In addition, one of the project teams will be tasked with determining the future environmental costs that we can expect to see in the future – in other words, the costs of permafrost thaw to the global economy.”
People living on the coasts of permafrost regions are already at risk: if the ground becomes too soft and fails, they lose their homes. Water pipes can break. In some places, oil and gas lines have already started to leak, and soils are contaminated. Also, the increased load of organic material coming from eroding permafrost soils at the coast is changing the marine habitat – in the best case, this could increase the amount of nutrients available to marine organisms, especially fish. On the other hand, it might harm the ecosystem. In addition, contaminants and pathogens that have remained frozen in the soil for millennia could find their way into coastal waters.
“All of these aspects are of course very important to local populations, which is why we’ll work together with them over the next five years to devise new strategies and solutions,” Lantuit explains. To make that happen, the soils will be precisely surveyed and mapped, so as to identify areas that are thawing only slowly, or are solid and firm, providing locations where new houses can be safely built. “We’re especially happy that the indigenous populations, which have lived in these regions for thousands of years, are also actively involved,” says Lantuit.
As a symbol of this proactive type of cooperation between researchers and indigenous people, the EU project was dubbed “Nunataryuk”. In the language of the Inuvialuit, who live in the western Canadian Arctic, it literally means “from land to sea”; the nearest English equivalent is most likely “coast”.
Prof. Hugues Lantuit
Nunataryuk Project Coordinator
Alfred Wegener Institute
D-14473 Potsdam (Building A45 S-307)
10 May 2019
Permafrost under the Arctic seabed is more widespread than previously thought, and is mostly warming, a new study finds
The fate of permafrost – soil that is frozen for two or more years – is of huge importance for the global climate because of the large amounts of organic carbon stored in it, which can be released into the atmosphere as these soils start to thaw.
While the distribution of permafrost on land is well mapped, little is known of the distribution, depth and behavior of permafrost under the Arctic’s seabed – the submarine permafrost.
Scientists have now, for the first time ever, modelled the distribution of submarine permafrost underneath the entire Arctic seabed. Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans in the latest issue (April 2019), their findings reveal that submarine permafrost is more widely distributed than previously thought, and is almost all getting thinner.
These findings are significant, because knowing how much submarine permafrost exists is a crucial first step in predicting how much methane and carbon dioxide might be released into the atmosphere from underneath the Arctic seabed.
“As sea ice melts and the temperature of the Arctic water column increases, some of this heat is being transferred to the seabed, accelerating the thaw of submarine permafrost. This raises the possibility of releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s crucial that we get a better understanding of where submarine permafrost is located and how vulnerable it is to this warming,” noted Dr. Paul Overduin from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and lead author of the study.
Since the last Ice Age, the world’s oceans have risen by about 120 meters, covering a lot of land that was deeply frozen. Most marine permafrost is thought to be such relict terrestrial permafrost, which now finds itself under the Arctic Ocean. Scientists have so far predicted where marine permafrost exists by reconstructing global sea levels and modelling the underwater topography (bathymetry) of the oceans. Observational data from ships has also provided some data, but it is limited to just a few areas in the Arctic.
Paul Overduin and his colleagues tweaked this approach by adding a heat flow model. First they modelled how Arctic sea levels rose and fell over hundreds of thousands of years. Where low sea levels left the land exposed to a cold climate, the model shows that permafrost developed. High sea levels, such as those we have today, flooded the land and created submarine permafrost. To see how submarine permafrost evolved over time, they then used a simple mathematical model to track the heat flow into the ground from the ocean, to understand how quickly permafrost thaws once it is covered by seawater.
The team also compared the model to some of the few seismic surveys and drilled cores available, in the Kara and Beaufort Seas, and found a good match. According to their model, permafrost exists under 2.5 million square kilometers of the Arctic seabed (roughly half the size of the European Union), larger than previous estimates. They found that permafrost beneath the ocean is warming and the ice in it is thawing. Most surprising to the team was that 97% of submarine permafrost is thinning, implying that submarine permafrost will almost certainly disappear if the Arctic seas continue to warm. Over 80% of submarine permafrost is located in the Siberian Arctic Seas, which are relatively shallow with an average depth of 100 meters.
Their work is an important step answering some larger questions about how much the Arctic is contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. “The big question on everyone’s mind is how this warming of marine permafrost and thinning will impact on methane emissions. Our work provides a baseline to start modelling emissions against various future warming scenarios,” concludes Sebastian Westermann of the University of Oslo, one of the co-authors of the study.
Ice content: A view of the Arctic Ocean show the land and water depth. The model calculates how much ice remains in the sediment below the ocean floor. (Map: Paul Overduin)
Cardinalty: Modelled temperatures below the ocean floor allow us to estimate how thick the permafrost is around the Arctic Ocean. The light blue line shows the previously assumed distribution of potential submarine permafrost. The coloured region shows how deep the permafrost is beneath the sea floor. (Map: Paul Overduin)
The study is part of the Nunataryuk research project, which aims to assess permafrost thaw, study how it contributes to climate change, understand its impacts on indigenous communities and other people, and develop mitigation and adaptation strategies. The project brings together world-leading specialists in natural science and socio-economics and connects them with stakeholders from around the Arctic coast. Nunataryuk is an EU-funded Horizon 2020 project coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany.
Overduin, P. P., Schneider von Deimling, T., Miesner, F., Grigoriev, M. N., Ruppel, C., Vasiliev, A., et al (2019). Submarine Permafrost Map in the Arctic Modelled Using 1-D Transient Heat Flux (SuPerMAP). Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 124. DOI: 10.1029/2018JC014675
Dr. Paul Overduin
Alfred Wegener Institute
Media relations contact:
Alfred Wegener Institute
Effective date: April 12, 2019
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7 November 2019
Erosion of permafrost coasts in the Arctic could vent major amounts of CO2
Permafrost coasts make up about one third of the Earth’s total coastline. As a result of accelerated climate change, whole sections of coastline rapidly thaw and erode into the Arctic Ocean. A study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters now shows that large amounts of carbon dioxide are potentially being produced along these eroding permafrost coastlines in the Arctic.
“Carbon budgets and climate simulations have so far missed coastal erosion in their equations even though it might be a substantial source of carbon dioxide,” says George Tanski of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, lead author of the study. “Our research found that the erosion of permafrost coastlines can lead to the rapid release of significant quantities of CO2, which can be expected to increase as coastal erosion accelerates, temperatures increase, sea ice diminishes, and stronger storms batter Arctic coasts.”
Simulating erosion effects in the lab
For the study, the researchers simulated the effects of erosion in a lab experiment. To find out how much carbon is released into the atmosphere along eroding Arctic permafrost coasts, they collected permafrost samples from Qikiqtaruk (also known as Herschel Island) off the northern coast of the Yukon in northwest Canada, and seawater from offshore. They mixed permafrost and seawater samples and then measured the greenhouse gases emitted over the course of four months, the average length of open-water season in the Arctic.
The researchers found that CO2 was released as rapidly from thawing permafrost in seawater as it is from thawing permafrost on land. Previous research had documented that thawing permafrost on land causes significant releases of greenhouse gases. This new research indicates that eroding permafrost coasts and nearshore waters are also a potentially notable source of CO2 emissions. It draws into question carbon budgets that have identified the coastal zone mainly as a point of passage for carbon from land to sea, neglecting possible carbon transport into the atmosphere.
The study was carried out during Tanski’s time at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. Co-authors come from AWI, GFZ, the University of Hamburg, and the University of Potsdam. The study is part of the Nunataryuk research project, which aims to assess permafrost thaw, study how it contributes to climate change, understand its impacts on indigenous communities and other people, and develop mitigation and adaptation strategies. The project brings together world-leading specialists in natural science and socio-economics and connects them with stakeholders from around the Arctic coast. Nunataryuk is an EU-funded Horizon 2020 project coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany.
Tanski, G., Wagner, D., Knoblauch, C., Fritz, M., Sachs, T., Lantuit, H., 2019. Rapid CO2 Release From Eroding Permafrost in Seawater. Geophysical Research Letters. DOI: 10.1029/2019GL084303
Dr. George Tanski
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Telephone: +31 644 804 694
Media relations contact:
Dipl.-Phys. Philipp Hummel
Public and Media Relations
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam GFZ
German Research Centre for Geosciences
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The Executive Committee is the supervisory body for the execution of the Project and shall report to and be accountable to the General Assembly. It will be represented by the Activity Coordinators, the head of the Stakeholder Forum, a representative from the SAB (R. Gordon), the WP Leaders (on request), and the Project Coordinator. A young researcher active in the project will be recruited in the Executive Committee at the end of the first six months of the project.
The Executive Committee will make decisions concerning every aspect of the project: technical, financial, scheduling, partnerships, dissemination, and exploitation and will be supported by the Project Office. It will normally meet in oerson at General Assemblies and online at least twice a year. Extraordinary meetings may also be called.
|Alfred Wegener Institute|
Social Science Activities
|Stefansson Arctic Institute|
Physical Science Activities
|VU University Amstedam|
|Max Planck Institute for meteorology|
Member of ExCom 2019-
|Aklavik Hunters ad Trappers Committee|
Scientific Advisory Board & Stakeholder Forum
Member of ExCom 2017-2019
|Chief, Herschel Island Territorial Park, Inuvialuit Settlement Region|
Early Career Researcher representative 2020-2021
|Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna|
Early Career Researcher representative 2019-2020
|Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Natural Sciences
Early Career Researcher representative 2018-2019
|ACES - Stockholm University|
Early Career Researcher representative 2017-2018