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Permafrost In North Slope Thawing Sooner Than Expected, Study Reveals

First Posted: Dec 16, 2015 12:25 PM EST

Researchers have predicted new permafrost changes in northern Alaska, where its "far-reaching effects will come sooner than expected." The Deadhorse research site in Alaska had a mean annual ground temperature of 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit in 1988, today it is 28.5º F. Researchers predict that the average annual ground temperature will be 32° F, which is the melting point of ice, in a number of regions. 

"The temperature of permafrost is rapidly changing. For the last 30 years, the mean annual ground temperature at the top of permafrost on the North Slope has been rising," Vladimir Romanovsky, an author of the study, said in a news release"We believe this will be before 2100 at many locations within the North Slope."

Romanovsky is the head of the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. Romanovsky and his fellow researchers from UAF used data from several models and from their own on-the-ground observations to predict the effects of effects of climate and surface disturbances on permafrost.

The researchers predicted two possible scenarios regarding permafrost. One, carbon dioxide emissions could decrease, which would lead to even CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere by 2050, where it will remain constant by the end of the century.  

"In this scenario we will see substantial thawing of permafrost on Alaska's North Slope, but only in certain areas, particularly the foothills north of the Brooks Range," Romanovsky said.

The second, but extreme, scenario is that global CO2 emissions can continue at present rates, which will result in permafrost thawing on the North Slope. In this scenario, permafrost thawing would accelerate after 2050 and more than half of the permafrost on the North Slope would be thawing by 2100, according to the researchers.

"Under these conditions, the permafrost will become unstable beneath any infrastructure such as roads, pipelines and buildings," Romanovsky said. "The result will be dramatic effects on infrastructure and ecosystems."

Most infrastructures were built when the permafrost quite colder, thus thawing will make it difficult keep infrastructure running, according to Romanovsky. The thawing of permafrost will also significantly change ice-rich soils and it will impact landscapes by changing water distribution channels and changes in vegetation will affect wildlife.

"There is a huge demand for better information about permafrost," said Kevin Schaefer from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. Schaefer claimed that the U.S. needs a permafrost forecasting system.

"What we need is an operational forecast that occurs every year-projecting out at least one year but probably up to a decade," Schaefer said. "People who maintain and build infrastructure in Alaska need to know what the thaw depth is going to be so they can plan."

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