We’re Scarily Close to the Permafrost Tipping Point

Permafrost, Sweden:Dentren via Wikimedia Commons

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Permafrost—the ground that stays frozen for two or more consecutive years—is a ticking time bomb of climate change. Some 24 percent of Northern Hemisphere land is permafrost. That’s 9 million square miles (23 million square kilometers) found mostly in Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and other higher mountain regions.

Unfortunately, thawing permafrost releases massive amounts of methane and/or carbon dioxide. The question is whether that would happen over the course of decades or over a century or more. This short video from the Yale Climate Forum explains the current scientific thinking on just how close we might be to the lethal tipping point.

Meanwhile this 90-second permafrost primer from the Climate Desk explains exactly we want this northern freezer to remain frozen. 

The map below shows land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere. It also shows the subsea permafrost that underlies the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean. 

Map of Northern Hemipshere permafrost on land and under the Arctic Ocean:

Map of Northern Hemisphere permafrost on the land and under the Arctic Ocean: Credit: Tingjun Zhang via the National Snow & Ice Data Center

We really really don’t want permafrost to melt since its emissions have the potential to dwarf our own. As the Yale Climate Forum video says, we have the theoretical ability to control our carbon emissions but none whatsoever to stop a permafrost tipping point once it’s reached.

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In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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