Thawing permafrost: Big climate system danger

Permafrost holds 2x more carbon than Earth’s atmosphere and 3x more than all forests. Thawing will hugely impact global climate warming

Science Session: Thawing Arctic Permafrost–Regional and Global Impacts

by US National Academy of Sciences, 12/05/2020

Science Session: Thawing Arctic Permafrost–Regional and Global Impacts

Temperatures across the Arctic are increasing two to four times faster than the global average. The dramatic consequences that are already apparent include reduction of sea-ice cover, accelerating loss of land ice from glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet, proliferating wildfires, and—the topic of this panel—ongoing heating and thawing of the permafrost that underlies most of the land area of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions across the globe. Permafrost thaw is a direct threat to buildings, roads, and pipelines, and it can greatly accelerate erosion along rivers and coastlines with severe consequences for communities located there. But an impact with much wider consequences is the release of carbon dioxide and methane by the decomposition of previously frozen organic matter, affecting the rate of growth of global warming and all of its impacts everywhere. (There is estimated to be something like 2.5 times as much carbon in the as in the entire global atmosphere; the key question is how fast it will come out.) The panelists, leading Arctic experts all, explain the complex science of thawing permafrost and elucidate the implications both regionally and globally.

Editors note: I have often mentioned the potential risk of rapid permafrost thawing serving as a source of powerful positive feedback on global warming from the abrupt emissions of greenhouse gases. The emissions include methane, which has a global warming potential more than 80 x that of CO. The video runs for almost 1½ hours. However, if you want to understand how science works in what are relatively conservative approaches and whether the risks that concern us in the Vote Climate One group are real, the whole video should be well worth watching.

In this pay particular attention to what is left out of the predictive models for future growth of emissions. The actual reality is likely to be even worse.

Finally, a lot of the discussion is based on the idea still common in 2020, that there is some kind of ’emissions budget’ that allows time to stop anthropogenic emissions. With more data, e.g., from the still conservative IPCC Sixth Assessment Report there is much less mention that there is no ‘safe’ emissions budget. Action to slow and reverse global warming is urgent! To be effective this will need global mobilization with cooperation at government levels as well as involving people. Here, our government in Australia has been quite hostile to any kind of action on global warming because of their apparently rusted-on allegiance to the fossil fuel industry and super-wealthy special interests associated with it.

In Scotty’s own words in one of his pet mediums – something to think about:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he supports Australia’s fossil fuel industry – and particularly coal, which he… says will be around for “decades to come”. “When it comes to the coal industry, it’s worth $35 billion to us every year in exports, and that’s money Australia needs to grow our economy,” Mr Morrison said. “What you need in today’s energy economy is you need to continue to run your coal-fired power stations for as long as you possibly can and that is our policy … we want them to run as long as they possibly can.” Coal-fired power stations will continue to run to back up renewable power sources, although Mr Morrison said gas would play a larger role in the energy mix in years to come. Mr Morrison added that building a new coal-fired power station would be difficult because of the state government planning powers, which would “probably never allow them to do it”. For the video see: The Australian, 14/03/2022, Commentary/coal-will-be-around-for-decades-to-come-scott-morrison/video. See also ‘We will keep mining’, says Australian prime minister Scott Morrison about the future of coal.

What can/must we do about this dreadful government and even worse situation?

We need to turn away from the the road to hothouse hell, and we won’t do this by continuing with the kind of business as usual Scotty from Maketing and his fossil fuel puppets are spruiking!

It seems to take the clear thinking of Greta Thunberg, a 16 year-old autistic girl who concluded school was pointless as long as humans continued their blind ‘business as usual’ rush towards extinction.

Listen to Greta’s speech live at the World Economic forum in Davos 2019. Except for her reliance on the IPCC’s overoptimistic emissions budget, everything she says is spot on that even she, as a child, can understand the alternatives and what has to happen.

In other words, wake up! smell the smoke! see the grimly frightful reality, and fight the fire that is burning up our only planet so we can give our offspring a hopeful future. This is the only issue that matters. Even the IPCC’s hyperconservative Sixth Assessment WG2 Report that looks at climate change’s global and regional impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities makes it clear we are headed for climate catastrophe if we don’t stop the warming process.

Scott Morrison and his troop of wooden-headed puppets are doing essentially nothing to organize effective action against the warming. In fact they have expended considerable effort to deny the science, punish the institutions doing the science, misrepresent the facts, and try to divert interest to anything else but action on climate change. Beyond this they are continuing to support and subsidize continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry. Basically, all they doing is throwing coal on the fire and rearranging the furniture in the burning house to be incinerated along with anything and everyone we may care about.

In Greta’s words, “even a small child can understand [this]”. People hope for their children’s futures. She doesn’t want your hopium. She wants you to rationally panic enough to wake up, pay attention to reality, and fight the fire…. so our offspring can have some hope for their future. Vote Climate One’s Traffic Light Voting System will help you use your preferential votes wisely on behalf of our offsprings’ future.

Our young ones are walking into an unknown future. Give them hope and not the Ukraine.

Featured image: Tundra fire burning on permafrost along a 30 km long front (with even more burning out of the frame, dated 20/07/2022, Picture centered on lat=71.50116, lng=145.43701 at zoom 10, well north of the Arctic circle in Russia’s Siberian Sakha Republic. Image downloaded from European Space Agency’s Sentinel Hub EO Browser using False color, urban with RGB tweaking to emphasize currently burning area and the reddish burn scar. Fire burned for over 3 months / uploaded here by William Hall.. See

Views expressed in this post are those of its author(s), not necessarily all Vote Climate One members.

Too late already? The frozen Arctic is burning now!

The sensational title describes reality. World’s largest carbon store, peat covering permafrost, is now burning year-round through midwinter

The featured graphic above shows a false-color picture of an active fire burning on a forested area of permafrost in the drainage of the Lena River not far from Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic in Siberia. The video below, from the Siberian Times, documents that the Arctic is burning, even through the entire winter under snow cover in the peat layer covering permafrost. This is only one of many reports (e.g., see Burning the High Arctic: 2020 Spring and Summer Fire Season in Sakha Republic. A Precursor of Fire Seasons to Come?) in this source of the escalating frequency, area, and ferocity of the wildfires burning forests, tundra, and peaty organic soils covering permafrost in the Arctic (Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia (mostly Russia/Siberia). This is also a phenomenon I personally studied extensively last year using freely available access to NASA and European Space Agency satellite monitoring: “Portents for the Future – 2020 Wildfires on the Siberian Permafrost“.

At least where the burning Arctic in Siberia is concerned, peaty soils covering permafrost are susceptible to prolonged burning from the the margins of the Arctic Ocean to the southern boundaries of the permanently frozen soils as just reported in the journal article here that matches ground truth reporting with the satellite monitoring results.

Figure 1. The study areas.

by Kuklina et al, 23/02/2022 in Land

Fires on Ice: Emerging Permafrost Peatlands Fire Regimes in Russia’s Subarctic Taiga


Wildfires in permafrost areas, including smoldering fires (e.g., “zombie fires”), have increasingly become a concern in the Arctic and subarctic. Their detection is difficult and requires ground truthing. Local and Indigenous knowledge are becoming useful sources of information that could guide future research and wildfire management. This paper focuses on permafrost peatland fires in the Siberian subarctic taiga linked to local communities and their infrastructure. It presents the results of field studies in Evenki and old-settler communities of Tokma and Khanda in the Irkutsk region of Russia in conjunction with concurrent remote sensing data analysis. The study areas located in the discontinuous permafrost zone allow examination of the dynamics of wildfires in permafrost peatlands and adjacent forested areas. Interviews revealed an unusual prevalence and witness-observed characteristics of smoldering peatland fires over permafrost, such as longer than expected fire risk periods, impacts on community infrastructure, changes in migration of wild animals, and an increasing number of smoldering wildfires including overwintering “zombie fires” in the last five years. The analysis of concurrent satellite remote sensing data confirmed observations from communities, but demonstrated a limited capacity of satellite imagery to accurately capture changing wildfire activity in permafrost peatlands, which may have significant implications for global climate.

Keywords: smoldering fires; zombie fires; boreal forest; permafrost; Evenki; subarctic

Read the complete article….

What do I mean by “Too late already”? for a burning Arctic

It is still early days for an exact quantification of the amount of organic carbon sequestered in the Arctic and subarctic region (e.g., as organic matter in the form of living things, peaty soils, and frozen CO₂ and methane hydrates on, in and under the permafrost). However, our best estimate is that the permafrost region currently holds probably at least two times the total mass of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere. This is not the fossil carbon being released by human industries. According to the US NOAA Arctic Report Card article for 2019 on Permafrost and the Global Carbon Cycle by T. Schuur:

  • Northern permafrost region soils contain 1,460-1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon, about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere.
  • This pool of organic carbon is climate-sensitive. Warming conditions promote microbial conversion of permafrost carbon into the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane that are released to the atmosphere in an accelerating feedback to climate warming.
  • New regional and winter season measurements of ecosystem carbon dioxide flux independently indicate that permafrost region ecosystems are releasing net carbon (potentially 0.3 to 0.6 Pg C per year) to the atmosphere. These observations signify that the feedback to accelerating climate change may already be underway. [my emphasis].

Note that (1) positive feedbacks can grow exponentially (i.e., into ‘explosions’), and (2) a significant proportion of the permafrost carbon is sequestered in the form of frozen methane hydrates. Methane in the hydrate form is inert, but under heating it ‘melts’ and decomposes into water and methane gas – where for the first 20 years of its life in the atmosphere is around 85 TIMES more potent per molecule than CO₂. Even after 100 years is more than 20x potent (IPCC AR5 via Wikipedia). Thus, if global warming triggers an abrupt thawing of Arctic permafrost the rapidly increasing greenhouse could drive global temperatures substantially higher than if CO₂ was the only concern.

To me, the bulk of the evidence in my 2021 Portents for the Future graphical essay as placed in context in my subsequent January 2022 essay “Some fundamental issues relating to the science underlying climate policy: The IPCC and COP26 couldn’t help but get it wrong” suggest that our planet has already passed tipping points where the “natural” positive feedbacks will continue warming the Earth even if we instantly stopped human generated carbon emissions. Note stopping our emissions should at least slow the rate of warming to give us some more time to actually stop the warming – so this remains a vital task! In other words not only do we have to stop carbon emissions from human activities, but we have to implement global scale projects to stop and reduce global heating, e.g., by capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon by fertilizing and farming ocean deserts. In any event, if we don’t stop the warming feedbacks while we still have the possibility, we will soon pass the point of no return where near term global mass extinction becomes virtually certain.

I am not a near-term climate ‘doomer‘, although I see doom as inevitable if we don’t stop warming. Based on more than a decade studies of the co-evolution of the human species and our technological capabilities, I think if it took us 150 years to burn enough fossil carbon to trigger runaway global warming, we should be smart and capable enough to put that carbon back into safe storage before it kills us. The conclusion of that study in 2016 led me to where I am now rather than trying to finish the book for an audience that probably would not be there to ever read it.

William Hall, 2016

The deep cultural change needed to reach a sustainable future can only be achieved by political action to replace our puppet governments protecting their greedy puppet masters

The puppets show and tell
Captain Humbug showing the parliamentary puppet troop what it is all about. ““Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.” With these words Australia’s Treasurer Scott Morrison taunted the Opposition, attempting to ridicule its commitment to renewable energy.” – The Conversation (15-02-2017)
Fossil fuel donations keep puppets in government.
See also Katherine Murphy in The Guardian on 09/02/2017 for the live video — “Scott Morrison brings coal to question time: what fresh idiocy is this? What a bunch of clowns, hamming it up – while out in the real world an ominous and oppressive heat just won’t let up.”

In Australia the puppets, fools and knaves forming our LNP COALition government continue working assiduously to protect the fossil fuel and related industries’ abilities to burn fossil carbon and emit methane for unimaginable profits by doing everything they can to deny, delay, block, confuse, distract any effective action to stop these greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, to begin effective solutions for the climate emergency we must clearly recognize and act on the need to replace this government with capable and trustworthy representatives who if elected will put action on the climate emergency at the top of their Parliamentary agendas.

To do this we have to accept the facts that are enough to make any sane person panic. However, in the incredibly wise words of a 16 year old autistic child, Greta Thunberg, we need to recognize that the panic can be answered with prompt action.

Listen to Greta’s speech live at the World Economic forum in Davos 2019. Except for her reliance on the IPCC’s overoptimistic emissions budget, everything she says is spot on that even she, as a child, can understand the alternatives and what has to happen.

In other words, wake up, smell the smoke, see the reality, and fight the fire that is burning up our only planet so we can give our offspring a hopeful future. This is the only issue that matters. All Capt. Humbug and his troop of wooden-headed puppets are doing is rearranging the furniture in the burning house to be incinerated along with anything and everyone we may care about. In Greta’s words, “even a small child can understand [this]”. People hope for their children’s futures. She doesn’t want your hope. She wants you to panic enough to wake up and fight the fire…. so our offspring can have some hope for their future. Vote Climate One’s Traffic Light Voting System will help you use your preferential votes wisely on behalf of our offsprings’ futures.

Help give them the bright future they hope for!
Views expressed in this post are those of its author(s), not necessarily all Vote Climate One members.

Thawing permafrost is crossing several tipping points

An EOS article published today puts exclamation marks around yesterday’s post: “Thawing permafrost in the Arctic warns we are probably crossing several critical tipping points on the road to runaway warming and near-term human extinction“.

The increasing incidence of wildfire in the Arctic is not only thawing permafrost but also changing the entire underlying structure of the region.” The net result is to greatly increase the rate of thawing and the amount of greenhouse gases being released to the global atmosphere (which is why it concerns us here in Australia!)

The bottom line is that if we humans don’t stop the continuing increase in global temperature (global warming) it will soon be impossible to do so because of the exponentially increasing positive feedbacks from temperature sensitive greenhouse gas emissions like this. This is the threshold, or point of no return, beyond which our planetary climate system is fully committed to complete its flip into the hothouse hell state. (see Steffen et al. 2018, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene and my own 2021 research presentation, Portents for the Future – 2020 Wildfires on the Siberian Permafrost.)

by Danielle Beurteaux, 1 February 2022 in EOS

The Anaktuvuk River Fire in 2007 tore through 100,000 hectares of Alaskan tundra in almost 3 months of continuous burning. This fire not only changed the area vegetation, but it also thawed permafrost and led to the formation of thermokarst. This is a dramatic example but may serve as a bellwether incident for climate to come.

Almost everything hinges on permafrost in the Arctic ecosystem.”

Arctic permafrost stores 33% of Earth’s organic carbon, even though it covers only 20% of the planet. It also acts as the structural foundation, physically and ecologically, for the entire pan-Arctic region. Permafrost thawing has cascading effects on the hydrological conditions of the landscape and ice and also triggers changes in vegetation and releases stored carbon. “Almost everything hinges on permafrost in the Arctic ecosystem,” said Yaping Chen, a postdoctoral research associate at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Yet there are still questions about how fires (the incidence of which is increasing in the Arctic) and climate change might increase the amount of thermokarst—the uneven land formed after permafrost melts. Thermokarst is the result of the degradation of permafrost and provides reduced carbon sequestration and fewer niche ecosystems than permafrost.

“Our major result is that although fire only burned about 3% of the Arctic landscape, it is responsible for more than 10% of thermokarst formation,” said Chen. “However, climate change remains the predominant regional consideration of thermokarst formation.”

Researchers also found that fires increased thermokarst formation for up to 80 years postfire, much longer, said Chen, than previously thought.

We have poor knowledge about the presence of permafrost, said Chen. We don’t know exactly where it is or how much there is of it. “These difficulties make it very hard to predict where thermokarst may start and how it will develop over time,” she said.

Read the complete article…

Earth on fire
It’s an Emergency!

Humanity has only a few years at the most to stop and reverse global warming. If we fail to do this our children and grandchildren will have no future in the global mass extinction in Earth’s Hothouse Hell. Currently stifled and mesmerized by the humbug, lies, blocking and misdirection of the LNP COALition’s fossil fuel puppets, Australians are doing nothing effective to fight the warming fire that is burning up our only planet.

To have any hope of contributing to the solution, we must replace Capt. Humbug (a.k.a., Scotty from Marketing), his deputy dunce, Blarny Bulldust (The Man with the Hat), and their troop of wooden headed puppets occupying our Parliament with sensible people committed to acting on the climate emergency as their first order of business if elected to office. Vote Climate One’s Traffic Light Voting System is designed to help you replace the special interest puppets with good people who will help put out the fire rather than trying to con us into believing that it doesn’t exist…., or if it does, that it isn’t important….

Views expressed in this post are those of its author(s), not necessarily all Vote Climate One members.

Thawing permafrost in the Arctic warns we are probably crossing several critical tipping points on the road to runaway warming and near-term human extinction

Part 6 of David Spratt’s guidebook to events along the road to Hothouse Hell: Burning Siberian tundra, taiga forests and peat soils are all contributing to thawing permafrost and pushing greenhouse gas emissions past an important tipping point

Spratt focuses almost exclusively on the consequences of permafrost thawing without much consideration of the overall environment of which the thawing permafrost is only a part. Even looked at in isolation it is clear that greenhouse gases are being released sooner and in greater quantities that in earth system models and conservative IPCC reporting.

I spent several months last year researching the interacting dynamics of the 2020 Siberian wildfires (burning taiga forests, arctic tundra, and even the underlying peat soils) on the underlying permafrost and the likely impacts on greenhouse gas emissions from both the burning overburden and underlying permafrost. None of the modeling has the full complexities of the likely internal positive feedbacks within this permafrost system. In other words, although all authorities seem to accept that the Arctic permafrost is a dangerous threshold we could already be tripping over, I think most still badly underestimate the dangers it represents for flipping us past the point of no return on the road to Earth’s Hothouse Hell climate state and global mass extinction.

Exposed ice wedge in slumping permafrost

31 January 2022

Have tipping points already been passed for critical climate systems? (6) Permafrost: Beyond the models

by David Spratt in Climate Code Red
Sixth in a series.   
Read 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. It covers one-quarter of the land mass of the northern hemisphere, and contains 1.5 trillion tonnes of carbon, twice the amount currently in the atmosphere and triple the amount emitted by human activity since 1850.  Permafrost buried beneath the Arctic Ocean holds 60 billion tons of methane (in structures known as methane clathrates) and 560 billion tons of organic carbon.

Permafrost is releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases, and feedbacks are under way, but the dynamics are not yet well enough understood to be able to judge whether tipping points have been reached or not.  As previously noted (in part 1 of this series), University of NSW researchers point out that: “We do not know exactly how close we are to a tipping point, or even whether we have already passed it… There are tipping points that while not yet triggered may already be fully committed to.” 

As permafrost thaws, soil microbes awaken and feast on the warming biomass, creating heat as they do so: a positive feedback that drives more defrosting. Russian permafrost scientist Trofim Maximov describes the global feedback: thawing permafrost releases greenhouse gases which cause warmer temperatures, melting the permafrost further: “It’s a natural process… which means that, unlike purely anthropogenic processes, once it starts, you can’t really stop it.”

A 2018 study estimated that stabilisation of the climate at 2°C may eventually result in release of 225–345 gigatonnes (GtC) of thawed permafrost carbon. That is equivalent to two-to-three decades of human emissions at the current rate. Some scientists consider that 1.5°C appears to be something of a “tipping point” for extensive permafrost thaw.

Read the complete article….

If rapidly thawing permafrost doesn’t sound the alarm that shouts, ‘Your house is on fire. If you don’t put it out your house will be gone!’ I don’t know what does. Unfortunately, in Australia we are living in a country whose national government seems to be a troop of wooden-headed puppets and knaves working for the fossil fuel industry. Here they are doing everything possible to drown out, stifle, and misdirect the alarm so it either won’t be heard at all, or will at least be ignored by the citizens they are supposed to protect and keep safe.

If we continue to follow the lead these puppets are trolling us with, nothing will be done to stop and reverse global warming until we are irrevocably committed to the Hell the fossil fuel industry is tipping us into. Think of the future when you decide who to vote for (and place last in your list of preferences) in the upcoming election. Hopefully, you will give your top preferences to candidates who can be trusted to put action on the global climate emergency at the top of their to do list if elected, and puppets of the fossil fuel and related special interests at the bottom of your list.

To help you, we are making available what we know about each candidate via our electorate specific Traffic Light Voting System.

Views expressed in this post are those of its author(s), not necessarily all Vote Climate One members.