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When Frozen Ground Turns to Mush, What will Happen to Us?

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

As the Earth warms, permafrost is thawing, turning the once solid ground into watery mush. There are many impacts from the thawing of the ground: massive carbon emissions, toxic mercury and deadly diseases.

Mountain Range in the Arctic. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Permafrost is ground that is completely frozen at 0 degrees Celsius or below and remains that way for at least 2 consecutive years. Permafrost is found near the Earth’s poles. Most permafrost is found in the Northern hemisphere, in countries such as Russia (Siberia), Canada, Greenland and Alaska. Under the Sea in the Arctic, parts of the ocean floor are frozen in what is called a Subsea permafrost. In total, permafrost covers 9 million square miles in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, permafrost is less prevalent but still present in the Andes and Southern Alps mountain ranges, as well as in Antarctica.

As the planet is warming, permafrost is thawing, especially in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth.

The top layer of permafrost is the active layer, and it thaws every summer and refreezes every winter. Depending on the location of the permafrost, the active layer can be a few centimeters thick to a few meters thick. Recently, it has been observed that some areas of permafrost have active layers that thaw for longer, while some have layers that never fully refreezes. When the active layer does not fully refreeze, this allows the warmer surface waters to spread deeper into the frozen ground, which speeds up the thawing of the permafrost.

It is estimated that about 2.5 million square miles of permafrost could thaw by 2100. This is bad news for the environment, as trapped in the Arctic permafrost is up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon, which is getting released into the atmosphere as the ground thaws. This amount is almost double the 870 gigatons of carbon in our atmosphere today.

How does permafrost thaw lead to carbon emissions?