Innovative atlas reveals perilous realities of permafrost thaw.
The European funded Horizon 2020 “NUNATARYUK”-project, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, has carried out a comprehensive six-year investigation into the rapidly changing permafrost regions in the northern hemisphere. The project seeks to answer pressing questions about the role of permafrost thaw in the global climate system, and the consequences for ecosystems, the economy, and the people living in these regions. The culmination of this ambitious endeavour is the “Arctic Permafrost Atlas,” a ground-breaking publication set to launch during the Arctic Circle Assembly on October 20.
The term “Nunataryuk”, drawn from the Inuit language Inuvialuktun, means “between land and sea”. It signifies the Arctic coastal zone, where a majority of the northern population resides. Those who live and work in this region must contend with the many dimensions of permafrost. The frozen ground shapes the land as well as the coast and the seabed. Rising global temperatures have left their mark, with permafrost thaw causing changes in landscapes, shoreline erosion, altered ecosystems, damaged infrastructure, and impacting the lives and livelihoods of Arctic residents.
“The once reliably frozen ground is now thawing,” reports project coordinator Prof. Dr. Hugues Lantuit, head of the Permafrost Coasts working group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Potsdam. “The changing permafrost in the far north also poses a global concern due to the immense carbon reservoir stored within it. Should this permafrost thaw entirely, it could release greenhouse gases equivalent to 50 to 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This staggering amount could have a huge effect on our climate,” Hugues Lantuit emphasizes.
To address the many challenges and uncertainties around permafrost thaw, the “Nunataryuk” project, which started in November 2017, brought together over 150 scientists from 26 partner institutions across 14 countries. The project blended on-site permafrost research and stakeholder input with computer simulations and socio-economic analyses. Based on new data from the project, GRID-Arendal, a Norwegian-based environmental communications centre, created a new map that offers a comprehensive view of existing permafrost on land and beneath the sea.
For the first time, it is now also possible to estimate how many people live on permafrost. “We are talking about around five million people,” says the project’s co-coordinator Paul Overduin from AWI. Computer models, however, show that many of them are unlikely to have frozen ground beneath their feet by 2050: In almost half of the 1,162 existing settlements, permafrost is likely to degenerate and then disappear altogether. This would drastically change the lives of more than three million people. The economic implications are equally alarming as more than half of the land on which oil and gas production, mining and similar activities take place is at risk of permafrost degradation by 2050.
“Permafrost also harbours frozen contaminants and pathogens that can be released as temperatures rise, presenting potential health risks to the region’s inhabitants.” explains Paul Overduin. “For example, the anthrax bacterium, dormant for decades, can be reactivated by thawing permafrost.” As part of the “Nunataryuk” project, experts have devised a disease transmission model specifically adapted to Arctic conditions to understand and contain future outbreaks.
The broad-ranging results from the “Nunataryuk” project are highlighted in the Arctic Permafrost Atlas. This comprehensive publication, created in collaboration with all project partners and GRID-Arendal, features 176 pages of maps, illustrations, photographs, and concise descriptions of permafrost and its transformations. Additionally, the atlas includes portraits of individuals who reside and work in the permafrost region, providing a vivid depiction of life on permafrost.
The Arctic Permafrost Atlas serves as a critical and urgent call to action, emphasizing the immediate need to address the profound consequences of climate change. The knowledge contained within this publication is an imperative tool for raising awareness and inspiring initiatives to combat this pressing global issue. “Each page is a warning about the dramatic consequences of climate change,” says Hugues Lantuit.
The new Arctic Permafrost Atlas can be downloaded here as a PDF: https://nunataryuk.org/news/atlas