Detailed new maps show thawing in Arctic permafrost
The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a series of maps that let viewers track the gradual thawing of permafrost around the Arctic pole between 2003 and 2017. The melting of permafrost could add massive amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere in the coming decades as it thaws, potentially worsening the effects of climate change.
Permafrost is defined as ground that remains entirely frozen for two full years, and is most commonly found in colder, high latitude and high altitude locals, such as lofty mountaintops or polar regions.
When this ground freezes, it locks huge amounts of carbon – sometimes in the form of dead plant life that is unable to decompose – within its icy embrace. Because it is located below the surface, it's difficult to keep tabs on from afar, and instead requires on-location data collection.
The vast swathes of permafrost that are located in the arctic are vulnerable to the increasing global temperature. Climate scientists are concerned that, should the permafrost melt and release the enormous amount of carbon dioxide and methane contained within, that these greenhouse gasses will enter the atmosphere, exacerbating an already dire situation.
According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, permafrost temperatures have increased dramatically from the 1980s to the present day.
The newly-released maps were created by combining satellite data on landscape features such as surface temperature and land cover with measurements taken on site at permafrost locations.
An animated version of the maps shows the dynamic ebb and flow of the permafrost cover. In the video, white represents areas that are continuously covered with permafrost, with darker areas representing regions in flux.
The scientists behind the maps caution that while they will provide many useful insights into the characteristics of the permafrost, others shouldn’t draw conclusions on climate trends based on them. Maps covering 30 years of data are set to be released later this year that would be better suited to that task.