Impacts of thawing permafrost to be severe for Fairbanks, noticed globally

Expected loss of near-surface permafrost to be bring positive feedback, increasing rate of warming
Adrian Peterson explores what impacts melting permafrost will have in the coming decades.
Published: Oct. 20, 2023 at 4:31 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Current data projections and analysis show that 93 percent of near-surface permafrost will disappear by 2100. The impacts of that loss will be immense in the arctic and the consequences will extend to a global stage.

“For Alaskans of course, the first thing we worry about is impact on our infrastructure, our houses, our roads,” said Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, a researcher and professor at UAF’s Geophysical Institute. Infrastructure will remain a top concern for those of us in the great north, but we won’t be the only folks with an eye on permafrost as it continues to melt with rising temperatures.

That’s the beginning of the problems waiting in the near decades. As temperatures have been increasing, the Arctic regions are now warm enough that residual heat from buildings is increasing the rate at which permafrost melts. “Permafrost became much more vulnerable and exactly the same engineering solutions which worked 20 or 30 years ago are not working any more now and definitely will not work in the future,” said Romanovsky.

While humans are facing these changes for the first time, we can look back to the Pliocene Epoch, over 2 million years ago, to understand what this melting may mean for us. A large loss of permafrost also occurred during that epoch resulting in significant changes to the land. But, during the Pliocene, the heating of the planet was proceeded by a relatively warm climate. Right now the current trends are coming on the back of an ice age. “So that time, the warm period was following a relatively warm time. In our case it’s a much worse situation because we have much more permafrost now,” Romanovsky said. This will make the impacts “much worse.”

The loss of that permafrost not only impacted the arctic, it impacted the whole world.

While we will see many changes from the lost permafrost, the Earth will be wholly impacted by the release of methane gas that will come from the melting ice in permafrost. “So for them it’s much more kind of scary that permafrost is releasing these greenhouse gases, which will increase the rate of warming and increasing the rate of warming will increase the rate of thawing of permafrost, a so called positive feedback mechanism,” Romanovsky said. Positive feedback meaning that the melting of permafrost will result in further melting of permafrost.

Areas that are further north will be most impacted by this thawing compared to locations in the south or south east of Alaska. While Anchorage does have some permafrost, there’s much less ice in it. In Fairbanks the permafrost is about 85 percent ice which means the melting will bring with it much more drastic changes to the land.