Climate scientists, policy experts and environmental justice advocates announced on Monday a major project to better understand the contribution of thawing permafrost to global warming and help Arctic communities cope with its effects.
Led by Massachusetts-based Woodwell Climate Research Center, the 6-year $41 million project will fill gaps in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost in the Arctic, currently a source of uncertainty in climate models. The project is funded by private donors, including billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.
With the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and the Alaska Institute of Justice, the project will also develop policies to help reduce the global impact of permafrost emissions and, locally in Alaska, help indigenous communities struggling with thawed soil. and problems arising from it.
“A lot of this is science,” said Sue Natali, a permafrost researcher, director of the Arctic program at Woodwell, and one of the leaders of the new project called Permafrost Pathways. “But really, it’s important for us to make sure our science is really useful and usable where it’s needed.”
Permafrost, the frozen ground that underlies much of the Arctic and can be hundreds of feet deep, contains the remains of plants and animals that have gathered over the centuries. As the region’s rapid warming has caused more of the top frozen layer to thaw, organic matter is decomposing and emitting carbon dioxide and methane.
Permafrost would hold about twice as much carbon as it does in the atmosphere. But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted last year as part of its Sixth Assessment Report, the magnitude and timing of emissions from thawing permafrost are uncertain.
†That uncertainty has been a major barrier to incorporating permafrost emissions into global climate policy,” said Dr. Natali.
John Holdren, the White House scientific adviser to the Obama administration and director of the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center, said better measurements, used to develop improved models, “could not only help us build a more complete to get a picture of what is happening now, but it would give us a better ability to predict what is likely to happen in the future.”
Permafrost thaw doesn’t just have global effects. Locally in the Arctic, it has caused roads, bridges, houses and other structures built into frozen ground to become unstable and unusable. Melting permafrost has also led to increased erosion, leading to land collapse and flooding.
The project will address these issues in collaboration with some Alaskan Native communities, said Robin Bronen, a human rights attorney and executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, based in Anchorage. A few coastal communities in the state have been trying to relocate for years.
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The project will work to develop a governance framework for relocations, she said, “to create a process where communities have the environmental data they need, based on their indigenous knowledge and the science, to make these decisions about whether or not they can stay where they are. they are.”
dr. Natali said the permafrost thaw is already underway and people are being affected by it. “People are moving their homes or have to build their homes to deal with this,” she said. “And there’s no support for that.”
The project is funded through the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding group that is an offshoot of the idea-sharing organization TED.
“It’s a lot of money,” said Dr. Holdren, although maybe not as much as some think, because the $41 million is spread over six years. “And I think we’ll be able to do a lot of good with it.”