Scientists surveying the state of the world's periglacial zones, cold regions often home to layers of frozen ground called permafrost, report that the days for many such regions may be numbered. The team now expects climate change to severely reduce periglacial coverage by halfway through the century, no matter what course of action we take in the meantime.

The team is made up of researchers from the University of Exeter, the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, who investigated the natural processes triggered by frost and snow in these periglacial zones, which cover about a quarter of the Earth's land surface.

This meant taking a close look at things like snow accumulation and "frost churning" (materials mixing during freezing and thawing), along with how they will be impacted by a warming climate.

"The project used very high-resolution climate and land surface models to demonstrate that geological processes and ecosystems in high latitudes (the far north and south) will be fundamentally altered by climate change during this century," said Dr Stephan Harrison, of the University of Exeter.

According to the team, even going by the most optimistic of carbon emission estimates, periglacial zones will be reduced "dramatically" by 2050 and almost disappear entirely by 2100, when they will only exist in high mountain zones. And they say that changes to the geological processes will not only have a local impact by altering the landscape and threatening biodiversity, it could kick off what are known as climate feedback loops.

"The anticipated changes in land surface processes can feedback to the regional climate system via alterations in carbon cycle and ground surface reflectance (light reflected by snow and ice) caused by the increase of shrub vegetation to alpine tundra," said Professor Miska Luoto, of the University of Helsinki. "Our results indicate significant changes in Northern European plant life. Many rare species can only be sustained in areas of intense frost activity or late-lying snow packs, so the disappearance of such unique environments will reduce biodiversity."

The team has published its research in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: University of Exeter