Permafrost is defined as ground (soil or rock and included ice or organic matter) that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years.
In the Northern Hemisphere, approximately 25% (23 million km²) of the land area contains permafrost. Most of the permafrost existing today formed during cold glacial periods, and has persisted through warmer interglacial periods, including the Holocene (last 10,000 years). Some relatively shallow permafrost (30 to 70 meters) formed during the second part of the Holocene (last 6,000 years) and some during the Little Ice Age (from 400 to 150 years ago). The thickness of permafrost varies from less than one meter to more than 1500 meters.
Subsea and offshore permafrost is permafrost overlain by a marine water column. Most submarine permafrost occurs in the Arctic, is relict terrestrial permafrost, and has been degrading since being inundated during sea level rise after the Last Glacial Maximum. Submarine permafrost can contain ice, depending on its temperature, salt content, sediment grain size, and composition.
While important to coastal communities and offshore processes and infrastructure, permafrosts plays also role in the global carbon cycle. Large amounts of fossil organic carbon and greenhouse gases are trapped in the frozen permafrost, which in turn, if released to the atmosphere, may increase global warming.
Nunataryuk will quantify the fluxes and fates of organic matter released from thawing coastal and subsea permafrost and assess what risks thawing coastal permafrost poses to infrastructure, indigenous and local communities and people’s health. The project will use this understanding to estimate the long-term impacts of permafrost thaw to the Arctic coastal regions, global climate and the economy.
Although land and subsea permafrost contains vast carbon stocks, it is currently either not represented at all in Earth System Models, or limited to a one-dimensional description of the land permafrost without lateral exchange. Nunataryuk will move beyond this one dimensional representation of permafrost thaw to characterize resulting lateral fluxes, thus linking land to coast to ocean. Nunataryuk will also be the first EU program ever to target the more vulnerable subsea permafrost and assess its potential for abrupt methane releases to the atmosphere. Subsea permafrost, in particular, is a potentially important compotent for the Earth System Models, but so far, the data basis for its inclusion in the Models has been missing. Both sub-permafrost and intra-permafrost carbon stocks, whether in the form of buried vegetation/soil or as preformed greenhouse gas, are poorly constrained, in terms of distribution, amount and source.
Three aspects are central to this effort, all of which involve a data gathering and research component, and a modelling component.
- First, lateral mobilization of carbon will be analyzed and included into an Earth System Modelling framework, extending model capability beyond oversimplified land-only one-dimensional treatment. Nunataryuk will link specific impacts of permafrost thaw, setting carbon in motion, to its consequence for coastal and offshore systems, and effects at the global scale.
- Secondly, Nunataryuk will quantify arctic coastal erosion, currently undergoing dramatic change in order to provide global models with fluxes of dissolved organic carbon and nutrients to the arctic shelf seas. This aspect of the project, in particular, promises to lead to insights as to how arctic shelf ecosystems, which are critical to food security in the north, will react to change.
- Thirdly, Nunataryuk delivers a public database with the first pan-arctic estimates of subsea permafrost distribution and of the carbon stock in the shelf sediment system. Subsea permafrost is parameterized and modelled and its thaw integrated into the Earth System Modelling framework along with improved estimates of carbon stocks and their transformation beneath the arctic seas at the circum-arctic scale. A product of this effort is the first ever map of subsea permafrost combining modelling and available validation data. Together, these changes represent a great coordinated step forward in our understanding of permafrost as a single phenomenon that spans the coastal zone.
On the way to these end results, for the first time, subsea permafrost and pan-arctic coastal fluxes will be integrated into an Earth System Model and coupled to the overlying ocean. As a result, we will be able to project permafrost changes and their consequences until 2300, for the first time including permafrost in its entirety from land to coast to ocean and coupled to the capacity to calculate the societal costs of mitigation.
On the social science side, Nunataryuk will examine the consequences of permafrost thaw for coastal economies, epidemiology, contaminants, and human and animal health.
The vulnerability of Arctic coastal societies to permafrost thaw will be assessed by using a risk evaluation methodology developed together with community leaders. This approach will build a holistic framework designed to devise adaptation strategies for the local economies in a solution-targeted context that does not consider issues in isolation and involves local communities from the onset.
To start this work, the project has produced coastal pan-Arctic permafrost thawing relevant socio-economic maps for the development of a baseline georeferenced dataset of circumpolar arctic communities.
Ecosystem services, including natural resources, will be quantified at community level and fed into economic assessments to enable analysis of concrete and tangible interactions between ecosystem services and economic activities. Considering data scarcity and the central importance of understanding the relative importance of inward and outward economic flows within arctic communities, a standardized approach will be developed to compute local multiplier effects associated with economic losses and gains connected to permafrost thaw. Capacity will be built among local governance institutions by developing a framework jointly with the local authorities to strengthen their ability to carry out strategic decision-making under uncertainty.
Through individual interviews, community-centred focus groups and stakeholder meetings, local discourse and traditional knowledge on permafrost thaw will be collected enabling the development of local intervention strategies that include local worldviews, values and material constraints. Perspectives of young people regarding future visions on SME development, entrepreneurship, educational opportunities, good practice of youth involvement and community development will be collected by applying “Foresight analysis”. This approach brings young people together with local, regional and national planners facilitating discussion between the groups and initiating actions that shed light on the expectations of young people.
Human health and well-being is defined as the mental, physical, spiritual, and social well-being. Health is challenged by rapid environmental and societal change in the Arctic: high mortality rates from accidents, spreading infectious and vector-borne diseases, such as tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease and mobilization of toxic substances due to permafrost thaw are the results. Health and pollution data is collected in Nunataryuk coastal communities in order to provide a solid baseline against which the effects of permafrost thaw can be assessed. The risk assessment will require data from different sources and will involve several approaches, for example in vivo and in vitro toxicology, mathematical modelling, epidemiology, and the use of toxicogenomics.
Baseline datasets are compiled to gauge the impact of permafrost thaw on mental wellness by targeting specific impacts, including release of contaminants and pollutants and impacts on infrastructure. Surveys will cover perceived impact of health, industrial activities, informal economy, tourism activities, water and food security. They will strongly focus on the impacts on young males in coastal communities, whom are known to suffer disproportionally from mental health issues. Mathematical models of anthrax do not explicitly account for an external, possibly climate-driven, source of spores nor consider space explicitly. Nunataryuk will develop a spatially explicit model to study the risk of anthrax outbreaks induced by permafrost thawing.
Nunataryuk produces practical and rational recommendations for decision-makers for assessing risks relating to existing and planned coastal infrastructure in an uncertain and changing climate with thawing permafrost. Innovative thermal and mechanical numerical models are needed to properly describe the relevant processes for coastal infrastructure, such as increased coastal erosion and increased water transport in unsaturated and ice-rich permafrost soils. Nunataryuk moves beyond evaluating the vulnerability of individual infrastructures to recommendations for evaluating the vulnerability of infrastructure systems at the community scales. The project produces new inventories of existing coastal infrastructure and its state, and develops data-aggregation algorithms and models that provide failure-probabilities (quantitatively or qualitatively) at the required scales. Through consultations and co-design, the project responds to community-identified needs and generates output that integrates state of the art science, consultation, and scenarios of future change for the use by local authorities.
Nunataryuk will link the applied research chain from co-designed knowledge creation in all different disciplines to actionable policy engagement. Within permafrost science, effective tools have been developed for the dissemination of research results, such as the GTN-P, and for the engagement of next generation researchers, such as Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN). However, a gap remains between physical science and people living on permafrost. Nunataryuk aims to bridge this gap. The epistemological ambition of Nunataryuk is to conduct truly transdisciplinary science, coupled to stakeholder interests. As such, the results of Nunataryuk’s natural science research, focused on permafrost from land to coast to ocean, have a designed relevance to stakeholders.
A chronic challenge for transdisciplinary science is the lack of a common language for physical and social scientists. Nunataryuk brings leading researchers from these research communities together in equal weight and defines mechanisms for two-way knowledge exchange between them. These mechanisms include the integration of knowledge from both communities in a common numerical Earth System Modelling framework, the inclusion of physical scientists in community-level engagement, and a focus on transdisciplinary issues such as human and animal health and community infrastructure. One tool produced by this combination of physical and social science knowledge is an innovative set of indicators for change.
The suite of Arctic social indicators developed and tested in the Arctic Social Indicators I and Arctic Social Indicators II projects includes indicators for 6 domain areas that reflect prominent features of human development in the Arctic. These domains include Health; Education; Material Wellbeing; Cultural Wellbeing; Closeness to Nature; and Fate Control. Hence, the current set of indicators for long-term tracking of human development only treats social issues. A critical gap in knowledge exists in the development of a monitoring framework that incorporates both social and biophysical considerations. Nunataryuk will recommend action to community decision makers for adaptation and mitigation within the context of estimates of the costs of mitigation based on an Integrated Assessment Modelling approach, taking state of the art methodology to the next level of integration between physical science and socio- economic understanding.
While physical scientists study the environmental consequences of thawing permafrost, the impacts must be assessed in a way that integrates the physical, biological, social, economic and cultural dimensions of permafrost thaw. Nunataryuk, together with stakeholders, will develop tools to reduce local risks related to thawing permafrost, including estimates of the economic costs at the community level of projected future sea level rise and permafrost thaw. To ensure that its legacy is relevant to the next generation and carried forward into the future, Nunataryuk’s socio-economic analysis will focus on young people’s perception of opportunities and challenges arising from the rapid changes taking place in Arctic societies and most important how they see their role in mitigating risks and supporting community development.