Photos: Not so permafrost

loading photos...
  1. Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has been monitoring the ice in Alaska since emigrating from Russia in 1990. In this series of photos taken in and around Fairbanks, a city built on permafrost, he shows some examples of the effects of thawing soil.

    In this image, ground collapsed after surface and ground water saturated the soil. The permafrost layer begins just below the first few inches of "active layer" of soil that thaws and freezes with the seasons. Solid ice is seen in part of the permafrost layer. (Prof. Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. This permafrost sinkhole appeared in a roadside ditch five miles north of the city. Permafrost is defined as soil that is frozen for two or more years. The top level typically warms in summer and refreezes in winter in subarctic places like Fairbanks. But warmer ground temperatures have caused more thawing in recent decades across Alaska. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. This bicycle path in Fairbanks has become a rollercoaster ride as ice below the pavement melts. Some areas along the path have sunk so low that bikers are warned to steer clear. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Thawing permafrost can take trees down with it. Here, pines along a trail lose their balance as ice melts in the Tanana River Valley, 20 miles southwest of Fairbanks. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Many of Fairbanks suburban roads are deformed by thawing permafrost. Crews regularly repair cracks, but larger sunken depressions simply become part of the ride. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This house two miles north of Fairbanks is a textbook example of what can happen to structures when permafrost starts to thaw. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Romanovsky says this sinkhole north of Fairbanks demonstrates the most serious effects of thawing permafrost. In this case, the ground thawed from the top, causing melted ice to flow downward and destabilize the ground below. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. This sinkhole appeared five miles north of Fairbanks. Permafrost in the area is typically about 150 feet thick, but it only takes a bit of thawing at the top to start a process that over decades could lead to the melting of all permafrost, Romanovsky says. (Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Prof. Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska Fairbanks
    Above: Slideshow (8) Not so permafrost
  2. A man smoke a cigarette in front of his
    Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty Images
    Slideshow (8) Warming refugees?
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/17/2011 4:38:03 PM ET 2011-02-17T21:38:03

The permafrost capping the top of the world is irreversibly thawing and within two decades will release more carbon than it now absorbs, scientists calculate in a new study that makes this dire prediction: Up to 60 percent of Earth's permafrost will have thawed out by 2200.

Why care if you don't live in Siberia, Alaska or northern Canada, where thawing permafrost has already buckled roads and swallowed structures?

Because permafrost — which is ground that's been frozen continuously for two or more years — holds enormous amounts of carbon in the form of frozen plant matter, and adding more of that to the atmosphere would raise temperatures even higher, scientists say.

    1. Hoffman withdrew $1,200 hours before death: sources

      Philip Seymour Hoffman withdrew a total of $1,200 from an ATM at a supermarket near his New York City apartment the night before he was found lifeless in his bathroom with a syringe still in his left arm, sources told NBC News.

    2. NYC mayor will skip St. Pat's parade over gay ban
    3. Indiana man back home 18 years after abduction
    4. 32 states in the path of another wild storm
    5. Judge vows quick ruling on Va. marriage ban

"The amount we expect to be released by permafrost is equivalent to half of the amount of carbon released since the dawn of the Industrial Age," Kevin Schaefer, lead author and a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said in a statement. "That is a lot of carbon."

Here's another way to look at it: The carbon predicted for release through 2200 is about one-fifth of the total amount in the atmosphere today.

Earlier studies have estimated the carbon released from the "active layer" of soil a few inches above the permafrost — soil that freezes and thaws in winter and summer.

But "ours is the first study to estimate how much carbon could be released from thawing permafrost and when," Schaefer told msnbc.com.

If anything, the estimate is very conservative, Schaefer says, because it doesn't include a known "feedback" mechanism: that permafrost carbon release will certainly add to warming, which in turn will accelerate the thawing and then even more carbon emissions.

Story: Alaska's national parks change with climate
Story: Frigid U.S., warm Arctic — what gives?

His team plans to incorporate the feedback estimate into their next modeling attempt, as well as emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas that decaying plant matter emits.

Using computer models, the team estimates that by 2200 between 29 and 59 percent of the permafrost will have disappeared.

So in less than 200 years, permafrost that took thousands of years to form will be gone, Schaefer said.

Anyone who's been to northern Alaska, where wild rides on buckled roads are part of the territory, will appreciate the visible impacts that thaw will cause.

But it's the carbon component that could have broader consequences.

The team predicted that by the mid-2020s the level of permafrost carbon emissions will mean that the Arctic will switch from being an overall "sink" that traps carbon to a "source."

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

Moreover, the experts wrote, that "source" impact "is strong enough to cancel 42–88 percent of the total global land sink" absorbing carbon.

Having these estimates, Schaefer said, means that policymakers trying to reach set carbon-reduction targets will "have to reduce fossil fuel emissions that much lower than previously calculated to account for this additional carbon from the permafrost. Otherwise we will end up with a warmer Earth than we want."

Schaefer expects the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will incorporate his team's estimates in its next climate policy reports. And "we're working with other scientists, they are already putting permafrost carbon in their models," he said.

The study was published online this week in the peer-reviewed journal Tellus. Funding came from NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Interactive: Permafrost: Greenhouse gases rise from melting northern ice

Video: Spotlight on Shishmaref

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments