The arctic permafrost has been mapped

What does it tell us and why does it matter?

The poles of the Earth are frozen. This is a fact taught at school. What is not taught as often is that such ground, if frozen for at least two years straight, is given a special name: permafrost.

Climate change is heating the earth. The melting ice caps and rising sea levels are key metrics to understanding just how far gone we are as a species. But in the permafrost we have another metric that promises to offer similar insights into our planet’s health. The trouble is that so far—except for some obvious pockets—we had no idea just where to look for this.

Now, results of the six-year-long NUNATARYUK project in Europe have made possible the successful mapping of all the permafrost that exists in the Arctic. They even released a brilliant atlast of this for free.

There is a lot ot unpack here, but these are the fun bits:

  • 16 million sq km of the Earth is permafrost.
  • It accounts for about 15% of the Northern Hemisphere.
  • It can be visible—above ground—or underground, and the atlast effectively makes this unseen permafrost visible by mapping.
  • People actually live in these areas of permanent sub-zero temperatures and have a special relationship with the permafrost much like people elsewhere might have relationships with their local forests, deserts, beaches, mountains etc.

And the permafrost is disappearing as a result of climate change. As Scientific American’s Emily Schwing puts it, “in many of Earth’s coldest regions ... it’s warming and melting and shifting rapidly. That means infrastructure is less stable, ecosystems are changing and cultures tied to life on frozen ground are shifting.”

The Permafrost atlas is not a record of how things are. It is poised to be a historically significant document in science recording how the permafrost was around 2023. In 1990, the average temperature of permafrost at 20m deep was just below –8°C. Today, it is closer to –5°C, or nearly twice as warm. The NUNATARYUK project atlas estimates that varying the target stability of the Earth’s temperature by as little as 0.5°C could be the difference between saving or losing anywhere from 2 million to 4 million sq km of permafrost.

In short, caring for the climate is more important than we can imagine. If you only browse one book this week, make sure it is the wonderful new Arctic Permafrost Atlas—and do so before it becomes nothing more than an unfortunate piece of history.

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