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article imageScientists amazed as Canadian permafrost thawing 70 years early

By Karen Graham     Jun 19, 2019 in Environment
Permafrost at outposts in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted, an expedition has discovered, in the latest sign that the global climate crisis is accelerating even faster than scientists had feared.
A team of scientists from the University of Alaska expressed astonishment at how much the landscape had changed after a quick succession of unusually hot summers had destabilized the upper layers of the giant subterranean ice block that has been frozen solid for millennia.
“What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir E. Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the university, told Reuters by telephone. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
The researchers' findings were published on June 10 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. With government representatives meeting at the UN Climate Headquarters in Bonn, Germany this week, the researchers' findings offered a further sign of the growing climate emergency.
The research team's last visit to the Canadian high-Arctic was in 2016. The team used a modified propeller plane to visit the exceptionally remote sites, including a Cold War-era radar base more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the nearest human settlement.
Romanovsky and his colleagues said they were confronted with a landscape that was unrecognizable from the pristine Arctic terrain they had encountered during initial visits a decade or so earlier. Romanovsky said the terrain change reminded him of the aftermath of a bombardment, reports The Hill.
Instead of frozen tundra, the ground had settled unevenly into hummocks and marshy hollows - called thermokarst - The formation of permafrost thaw lakes due to a warming climate is a positive feedback loop, as methane and carbon dioxide are released as permafrost thaws, contributing to further climate warming.
In parts of northern Canada s Mackenzie River Delta  seen here by satellite  scientists are finding ...
In parts of northern Canada's Mackenzie River Delta, seen here by satellite, scientists are finding high levels of methane near deeply thawed pockets of permafrost.
NASA Earth Observatory
“It’s a canary in the coal mine,” said Louise Farquharson, a post-doctoral researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.”
Thawing permafrost is a "tipping point for climate breakdown," Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan told Reuters. She described the thawing as a "clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”
Surveying the alarming changes
CBC Canada has a series published weekly called "In Our Backyard." The series investigates what is happening in Canada as the climate crisis impacts everything from extreme weather events to wildfires and the economy.
Dempster Highway crossing the Richardson Mountains  Yukon  Canada.
Dempster Highway crossing the Richardson Mountains, Yukon, Canada.
Pierre Racine
This week, CBC News featured Steve Kokelj - a permafrost scientist for the territorial government. His job is to survey the great Dempster Highway, 747 kilometers (464 miles) of gravel linking southern Canada to the Arctic. This highway is also known as the Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8.
The highway is named for the famous Yukon Mountie William Dempster, who earned renown for discovering the fate of The Lost Patrol. At the time the highway was constructed, to preserve the permafrost, the highway was built on top of a gravel berm 1.2 meters (3 ft 11 in) up to 2.4 meters (7 ft 10 in), to insulate the permafrost from the road above.
Kokelj has been surveying and documenting any changes in the permafrost under the Dempster Highway for nearly two decades, and he is seeing some alarming changes to the layers of ice and rock which underpin the North. "Think of permafrost as sort of the glue that holds the northern landscape together," he says.
Across the vast landscape of the Northwest Territories (NWT)  global warming is driving the thawing ...
Across the vast landscape of the Northwest Territories (NWT), global warming is driving the thawing of the Arctic's permafrost, creating thaw slumps that can dramatically alter the landscape.
Steve Kokelj Permafrost Scientist Northwest Territories Geological Survey
As rising temperatures thaw the permafrost, the terrain in the North is being changed by landslides and erosion, including along the famous highway. Kokelj describes the slumps that have been showing up with greater frequency along the highway.
As the ice-rich permafrost thaws, the ground settles proportional to how much ice there is in the ground," Kokelj says. There is one road slump that has been dubbed "the million dollar hole" because so much gravel had to be poured in to shore it up.
The highway is still driveable, but climate-related maintenance costs have more than tripled over a decade, to $5.1 million in 2016. "It really highlights the need to start thinking innovatively about the solutions, because these types of phenomena are going to become more and more commonplace," Kokelj says.
More about Canada, Permafrost, major changes, Climate crisis, Thawing permafrost
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