Managing Melting Permafrost: Protecting communities and ecosystems

For years, the town of Iñupiat town of Shishmaref, located on a small barrier island off the coast of the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska, faced severe erosion, sometimes losing large areas of land to the Bering Strait during storms[1]. The melting of permafrost, the underground layer of soil that perpetually sits at sub-freezing temperatures in some polar and high-altitude climates, sped the rate at which the island’s shores collapsed1. In August of 2016, Shishmaref’s residents decided that the risks of remaining on a disappearing island were too great to ignore and voted 94-78 to move the entire community inland, away from where it had persisted for hundreds of years1,[2].

 

Alaska is no stranger to permafrost melting, one of the most visible negative effects of climate change that can be found in the United States. By some estimates, permafrost underlies up to two-thirds of Alaska’s land area[3]. As permafrost melts, it loses its firmness, often collapsing homes and roads, as has been seen in permafrost-covered areas across the state.[4],[5]. These collapses have had particularly severe effects on Native Alaskan communities like Shishmaref4,5. Globally, vast reservoirs of carbon are locked within permafrost, which releases methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, when it melts[6]. The warming contribution of this methane has the potential to cause a feedback with devastating climatic consequences, in which permafrost that melts due to warmer temperatures also contributes to those temperatures by way of its methane releases[7].

 

The scope of problems created by melting permafrost calls for an increase in federal funding for research efforts that can result in recommendations for maintenance of solid, stable, and frozen permafrost by way of management practices and support for residents that both protect communities and maintain the ecological productivity of land in Alaska. One example of current knowledge relates to the effects of off-road vehicles (ORVs, a category that includes both ATVs and large industrial equipment such as Caterpillar tractors) on permafrost[8]. A review conducted in 1990 discussed existing research that found increased melting associated with ORV usage in permafrost-covered areas and recommended mapping of particularly sensitive areas, training of ORV drivers, and regulations on where and how often ORVs can operate8. Funding should be directed to evaluation of other human activities—potentially including logging and building construction—that affect permafrost integrity. On the community side, Shishmaref residents have expressed concerns that the state and federal governments will not assist them in their relocation1. The federal government should work with communities affected by permafrost melting and the state of Alaska to ensure that these communities receive the help they need to either relocate or slow the destabilization of permafrost. Ultimately, due to the global ramifications of permafrost melting, the United States and Alaska have a responsibility to employ strategies to protect permafrost and provide research that can both benefit permafrost-underlain communities in other persistently cold climates as well as their own (such as in Siberia and northern Canada) and protect the carbon reservoirs held within the world’s frozen soil.

 

Works Cited

[1] Herrmann, Victoria, and Eli Keene, “Self-Preservation: Amid Debate, An Alaskan Village Decides to Move Inland”, the Arctic Institute, last modified July 11, 2017, accessed March 17, 2019, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/self-preservation-amid-debate-alaskan-village-decides-move-inland/.

[2] “Shishmaref”, Kawerak, accessed March 17, 2019, https://kawerak.org/our-region/shishmaref/.

[3] Jon Campbell, “USGS Assesses Carbon Potential of Alaska Lands”, U.S. Geological Survey, last modified June 1, 2016, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.usgs.gov/news/usgs-assesses-carbon-potential-alaska-lands.

[4] “Climate Impacts in Alaska”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, accessed February 27, 2019, https://archive.epa.gov/epa/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-alaska.html.

[5] Nancy Fresco, “In Alaska, everyone’s grappling with climate change”, The Conversation, October 22, 2018, accessed February 27, 2019, https://theconversation.com/in-alaska-everyones-grappling-with-climate-change-105032.

[6] Jim Powell, “Climate Change and Alaskan Wetlands”, Association of State Wetland Managers, last modified January 10, 2015, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.aswm.org/pdf_lib/climate_change_alaskan_wetlands_0307.pdf.

[7] Edward A. G. Schuur, et al., “Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback,” Nature 520, no. 7546 (April 2015): 171-179, https://www.doi.org/10.1038/nature14338.

[8] Charles W. Slaughter, et al., “Use of Off-road Vehicles and Mitigation of Effects in Alaska Permafrost Environments: A Review”, Environmental Management 14, no. 1 (January 1990): 63-72, https://www.doi.org/10.1007/BF02394020.

5 thoughts on “Managing Melting Permafrost: Protecting communities and ecosystems

  1. The loss of permafrost and the environmental effects that can have is not something I’d heard about before – thanks for sharing! We don’t pay enough attention to the concept of climate warming feedback loops like the one you describe. The related clathrate gun hypothesis suggests that the loss of methane clathrates on the sea floor will release gaseous methane which will further increase the impact of global warming (causing even more clathrate to melt and more methane to be released). Although controversial, some believe the effect could cause ‘runaway warming on the scale of a human lifetime.’ Legislation and education in the communities where permafrost is being lost as you describe is definitely very important. The problem has a global scale, and only world-wide reductions in emissions can touch the root cause of this issue, but climate change must be addressed in every aspect and the loss of permafrost is clearly an important one.

  2. Your blog post points to the harsh reality of climate refugees that are already forced to move by circumstances beyond their control into new areas and situations that are beyond their control. The UN High Commission for Refugees recognizes climate change and disaster displacement as an area of concern and is already working on protecting the rights of these displaced people, promoting policy coherence to mainstream these issues, researching how to reduce risk of displacement, and working to ensure sustainable and equitable responses to the movement of displaced populations (UNHCR, 2019). Still, climate refugees lack a formal definition or recognition under international law even as hundreds of thousands of people are already moving as a result of climate (McDonnell, 2018). The United States does not recognize climate refugees either. The U.S. definition of a refugee is someone “persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion.” (Swift, 2019)

    Those from Shishmaref may be some of the first American climate refugees, but they are certainly not the last. Thousands more since then have been displaced as a result of sea level rise and extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes that get worse with climate change. It is time for the U.S. and other countries to recognize that climate refugees will continue to increase and that they need to be included in the definition of a refugee and planned for accordingly.

    Works Cited
    McDonnell, T. (2018, June 20). The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/06/20/621782275/the-refugees-that-the-world-barely-pays-attention-to

    Swift, J. (2019). Migration, Forced by Climate Change. Cornell Research. Retrieved from https://research.cornell.edu/news-features/migration-forced-climate-change
    UNHCR. (2019). Climate change and disaster displacement. Retrieved from The UN Refugee Agency website: https://www.unhcr.org/climate-change-and-disasters.html

  3. I’m very sorry to learn of the fate of the town of Inupiat, and it unfortunately reflects an emerging reality that the people who will be most affected by climate change’s effects will be indigenous and poor communities. This particular example seems immensely important due to the incredibly devastating effects that permafrost melting can potentially have in speeding up the process of climate change. I would be encouraged to see much more action and coverage from the government and media on this issue especially given the ramifications permafrost melt can have. However, I also certainly believe that the government should prioritize aiding the indigenous people in moving away from their land before anything else, especially given the long history of the government actively hurting these people.

  4. Very interesting blog post, the example of the small Alaskan community helps to point to real impacts being felt by the rising global temperatures. I spent a few days in Seward a few summers ago and I had no idea the problems these communities are facing due to global warming. This topic brings up the point that some communities, such as the poorer communities, are more adversely impacted by global warming than others. I agree with your suggestion that the government should assist in the relocation process. Also, in regards to the ORV usage, I know that a lot of the terrain up in Alaska and other areas with permafrost, which are largely covered by tundra, is very sensitive to human impact and can take thousands of years to recover. I think regulation of ORV usage could help with both reducing the methane emissions and protecting these environments.

  5. Not only is the climatic impact of the melting of permafrost widely unknown and underrated in its potential damage, but I also find this blog post very interesting in its relation to climate refugees as Elizabeth pointed out in her response. Although Alaska represents almost one fourth of the lower 48 states in landmass, the total population is under one million. I feel as though the small population and large amount of landmass make for a strange relationship between oil/gas industry, climate change issues/preserving nature, and indigenous populations. Like I said, the melting of permafrost is somewhat of a foreign concept to many, yet drastically changing the lives of indigenous people in Alaska. It was very interesting and informative to read about a rare problem and its affects in Alaska.

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