Humans often struggle to think about big objects and large-scale processes. That's not surprising, our brains just haven't evolved to deal with issues on a planetary scale. Permafrost is one of these things capable of boggling anybody's mind.

Far from our eyes and from most people’s minds exists a gigantic reservoir of organic matter. Defined as a layer of soil that remains frozen between 2 and 10000 years, the permafrost covers an area of around 20 million square kilometers, around the size of China, the US, and Canada combined. Its thickness ranges from 1 to more than 1000 meters, making it truly humongous. However, permafrost is shrinking at an increasing rate. It is estimated that today there is 10% less frozen ground in the northern hemisphere, compared to 1900. One hundred twenty years is but a blink of an eye on a geological timescale.  The consequences of this rapid melt are going to dire considering the fact that the permafrost is a massive carbon bomb, capable of drastically alerting the climate of the planet.


When we think about the relationship between emissions, CO2 concentrations and global temperature, we tend to imagine a stable process which is entirely under humanity can always regulate. While this is true to some extent, the rapid warming provoked by our emissions is triggering feedback loops which are beyond our control, and which can drive further warming without human intervention.

Permafrost is melting faster and faster because of global warming. As the organic matter thaws it releases vast amounts of carbon and methane. These additional emissions cause more warming, and in turn, the warming causes more melting.  Each year, permafrost emits as much greenhouse gases as Japan. Before the end of the century its emissions will exceed those of the United States. So far, we have underestimated the power of this vicious circle, which will continue to exacerbate the negative effects of global warming in the decades and even centuries to come.

92

billion tonnes

The amount of carbon that permafrost will emit by the end of the century.

20%

of human emissions

The share of permafrost emissions since the Industrial Revolution, by the end of the century.

3.8

million km2

The area of permafrost that will thaw for each degree of global temperature increase


Deadly consequences

$70trillion

This astronomical figure represents the additional costs which permafrost melt will add to the climate change bill before the end of century.

70 billion dollars worth of damage sounds bad, but a number just can’t describe the tragedy it entails. The additional emissions from melting permafrost will exacerbate all the devastating consequences of global warming :

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