Melting permafrost in the Arctic is causing ice landslides the size of Manhattan, study warns
- Arctic ice formerly considered permanent is now melting and causing landslides
- There are currently 4,000 active slides on one Arctic island alone, study found
- The area affected on Banks Island is now equivalent to the size of Manhattan
Permafrost is no longer permanent, in fact, it’s barely even frost, say researchers who used satellite imagery to depict a bleak portrait of a disintegrating Arctic fueled by climate change.
According to researchers at the University of Ottawa, as global temperatures rise, so too has the amount of permafrost melt contributing to massive ice landslides called retrogressive thaw slumps.
Specifically, an analysis of satellite imagery on Banks Island, an archipelago in the Arctic, shows that the instance of those landslides have increased by 60 times levels in 1984, from just 60 to more than 4,000 as of 2013.
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According to researchers at the University of Ottawa, as global temperatures rise, so too has the amount of permafrost melt contributing to massive ice landslides called retrogressive thaw slumps, such as the one pictured above
The area affected by the melting permafrost and the subsequent landslides is now equivalent to the size of Manhattan, researchers say.
‘We cannot stop thousands of thaw slumps once they start,’ said Antoni Lewkowicz, a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Ottawa.
‘We can only make changes in our own lives to reduce our carbon footprint and we can encourage our politicians to take the necessary measures to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
‘So that future warming is as limited as possible.’
Behind the massive uptick in the amount of crumbling ice, say researchers, are four particularly hot summers in 1998, 2010, 2011 and 2012 that caused the top layer of permafrost to begin melting.
According to the report, 85 percent of new landslides observed on Banks Island are caused by those summers alone.
New slumps have a tendency to grow, according to researchers who warn that in the coming decade the number of observed landslides could growing to an overwhelming 30,000.
As the ice continues to break apart, the threat may only accelerate, they say.
Landslides of ice have begun to rise rapidly on one Arctic island
Inside the permafrost are various types of organic material which, once thawed, will break down into carbon dioxide and methane gas, both of which will work to compound the problem.
Additionally, sediment from the slumps has already started to choke off rivers and lakes on the island, adversely affecting wildlife in the area, experts say.
Recently the U.N. said that a drastic rise in temperatures set to activate sea level rise across the globe is ‘locked in’ even despite ongoing efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
WHAT IS PERMAFROST AND WHAT HAPPENS IF IT MELTS?
Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer below the Earth’s surface found in Arctic regions such as Alaska, Siberia and Canada.
It typically consists of soil, gravel and sand bound together by ice, and is classified as ground that has remained below 0°C (32°F) for at least two years.
It is estimated 1,500 billion tons of carbon is stored in the world’s permafrost – more than twice the amount found in the atmosphere.
The carbon comes in the form of ancient vegetation and soil that has remained frozen for millennia.
If global warming were to melt the world’s permafrost, it could release thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
Because some permafrost regions have stayed frozen for thousands of years, it is of particular interest for scientists.
Ancient remains found in permafrost are among the most complete ever found because the ice stops organic matter from decomposing.
A number of 2,500-year-old bodies buried in Siberia by a group of nomads known as the Scythians have been found with their tattooed skin still intact.
A baby mammoth corpse uncovered on Russia’s Arctic coast in 2010 still sported clumps of its hair despite being more than 39,000 years old.
Permafrost is also used in the study of Earth’s geological history as soil and minerals buried deep in Arctic regions for thousands of years can be dug up and studied today.