PERMAFROST IN A CHANGING CLIMATE, IMPACTS OF THAWING
This story is brought to you in part by Borrum Energy Solutions
By Cori Marshall
The United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference is underway in Bonn, Germany. Proceedings are taking place under numerous UN bodies, the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is one of them.
The Convention was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 along with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Convention to Combat Desertification.
The UNFCCC recognized that there was a problem, set specific goals, and put the burden on developed countries to lead the way in combatting climate change.
Subsequent conferences have produced other monumental climate documents such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015) which have 192 and 197 Parties respectfully.
Background information on the UNFCCC states that the Paris Agreement "seeks to accelerate and intensify the actions and investment needed for a sustainable low carbon future." the agreement set goals of "keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels."
This year's conference brings together 1,960 States and organizations, with over 19 thousand registered participants.
While decision makers are meeting in Germany, we wanted to switch gears and look at how climate change will affect permafrost here in Canada. According to the Canadian Cryospheric Information Network (CCIN) "over half of the Canadian land mass is underlain by permafrost."
According to the Arctic Development and Adaptation to Permafrost in Transition (ADAPT) "Canada is a permafrost nation." With so much of the territory's soils frozen, it is important to have an understanding of how these soils will react to rising temperatures.
In order to gain a deeper understanding, we called on permafrost and climate change impact expert Stephen Wolfe from Natural Resources Canada's (NRCan) Geological Survey.
Wolfe characterized permafrost as the "ground that remains frozen year-to-year." In the southern regions of Canada freezes and thaws depending on the season, "in northern permafrost environments only the very upper portion of the ground thaws," he explained.
Wolfe said that "the water, soil, rock and any organic material [in the permafrost] remains below zero all year." He added that "permafrost tends to be very hard and resists water movement." There are nuances in understanding permafrost,
Wolfe explained that "if [there is] salt in the ground, [water] could actually remain unfrozen, so there is potential for groundwater flow with ground that is in fact considered permafrost."
"If it remains frozen, then roads, buildings and other infrastructure can be built on it," Wolfe said, and "engineers commonly design structures in permafrost environments with an effort to preserve [it]."
As the temperature rises the "thawing of permafrost opens the possibility of using groundwater as a potential resource for drinking," Wolfe said. He continued "thawing may contribute to the alteration of water budgets and flow of rivers," though less than through evaporation.
"Thawing of permafrost can have an effect on the atmosphere, as there is the potential for an increase in methane gas release to result from decaying organic matter that was previously frozen within permafrost."
There is a video of people in the Russian Arctic, setting methane gas on fire that was once trapped in the thawing permafrost. When asked if Russian permafrost was thawing at a faster rate than in Canada, Wolfe responded "no what is happening in Russia is based on a different geology."
Stephen Wolfe from Natural Resources Canada, Geological Survey
There is the possibility that as the permafrost thaws there may be "an increase in overland transport," Wolfe explained, "as a result of the decreased resilience of ice roads." He pointed to the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway and Tlicho all-season road as examples.
As we move further into a climate-changed future the impacts of a thawing permafrost will vary. As remote northern communities are dependent on the north-south supply chains having products, and fuel come overland, in trucks that have larger cargo capacities than the supply planes may drive provision cost down. The positive economic benefit has to be weighed against the atmospheric costs, and ask do we want the gasses that are trapped in the soil in our atmosphere?