The change is visible from space. In the Earth’s high latitudes, new lakes and ponds are appearing in once-dry areas. These so-called “thermokarst” lakes form when underground ice collapses as permafrost warms. In the freshly formed lakes, the greenhouse gas methane is bubbling to the surface and escaping to the atmosphere, where it will make human-caused climate change even worse.
“I’m very concerned about the state of permafrost ecosystems,” says Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University. He and other scientists interviewed in this month’s “This is Not Cool” video, by independent videographer Peter Sinclair, warn that thawing permafrost will have cascading impacts on ecosystems and local infrastructure, which is buckling as it shifts on formerly sturdy ground.
The scientists interviewed for this video say that gradual melting on land can stimulate the growth of new plants, which trap some carbon in the soil. That could ameliorate some of the impact of the permafrost thaw.
But Katey Walter Anthony, an aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, says that models suggest that even moderate future warming will be enough to induce the widespread formation of thermokarst lakes – and more bubbling of methane from deep below the surface. “It’s really hard to avoid this methane release,” she says.