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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Watching Tundra Melt

Watching Tundra Melt

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, September 18, 2017/Categories: natural history, photography, video, sustainability, environment, adventure , climate change

      Circumpolar Arctic Permafrost Distribution (credit: NSIDC & International Permafrost Association)

Somthing unusual is happening to areas of permafrost in the Russian Far East and the high mountains in South Asia. Changes in the frozen landscape are now being observed in 'real time'.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado, information on permafrost (frozen ground) is critical to "understanding environmental change, validating climate models, and building and maintaining structures in seasonal frost and permafrost regions". Permafrost covers nearly 9-million square miles (~24%) of the land surface in the Northern Hemisphere and is found as far north as 84°N in Greenland and as far south as 26°N in the Himalayan mountain ranges. Dramatic and expanding melting events have been seen in the Siberian tundra and now in the frozen valleys of the Tibetan plateau, the Earth's "Third Pole".

In Russia's Yakutia region, a gigantic chasm has been opening in the permafrost. Researchers with the Institute of Applied Ecology in Siberia and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany have been observing the massive chasm grow for several years. Its expansion indicates the crater is collapsing deeper and deeper into the ground. The defrosted slump has exposed forest stumps buried thousands of years earlier as well as the bones of Pleistocene mammals like Woolly Mammoths. The studies indicate a combination of warmer air temperatures and large-scale deforestation mutually re-inforced the permafrost melt in an environmental 'feedback loop'. Removing the cooling effect of forests covering the frozen ground has allowed more sunlight and warmer air to reach the ground during summer which increasing the expansion each year. Local residents are calling the crater, Doorway to the Underworld.


          'Doorway to the Underworld' in Yakutia, Siberia (Research Institute of Appllied Ecology of the Far North) Research Institute of Applied Ecology of the NorthResearch Institute of Applied Ecology of the North

Thousands of miles south of Siberian, villagers living above 12,000 feet in the Yushu Tibetan Prefecture of Qinghai Province in China observed blocks of mud flowing like a river of lava. Block of mud and grass were churned by melting permafrost higher up on the Tibetan Plateau due to solifluction. Solifluction is typically measured in inches/year and results from the waterlogging of soils over frozen ground. Permafrost is impermeable to water, so soils and turg on top slide downslope due to gravity. The Tibetan villagers observed these mud blocks flowing like a river which destroyed anything in its path. Due to the remoteness for much of the Tibetan Plateau, information of the extent of the melting and any exact understanding to cause and effect of the permafrost melting is still very limited. Considering that the mountainous plateau is the water source for most of south and east Asia's major rivers, more studies be wise to undertake.

While these two cases of permafrost melting are definitely dramatic, the Alfred Wegener investigators placed the Siberian event into a bigger picture of environmental change and importance:

"Global estimations of carbon stored in permafrost is [the] same amount as what's in the atmosphere."



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