Climate scientists, policymakers and environmental advocates on Monday announced a major project to better understand the contribution of permafrost thawing to global warming and to help Arctic communities cope with its effects.
Led by the Massachusetts-based Massachusetts Climate Research Center, the $ 6 million, 41-year project will fill the gaps in the Arctic’s monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost thawing, which is 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 mitigate the global impact of permafrost emissions and, locally, Alaska will help native communities struggling with landslides and the resulting problems.
“A lot of that is science,” said Sue Natali, a permafrost researcher, director of the Arctic program at Woodwell and one of the leaders in the new project, called Permafrost Pathways. “But really, it’s important for us to make sure that our science is really useful and usable where it is needed.”
Permafrost, the icy soil that underlies much of the Arctic and can be hundreds of feet deep, contains the remains of plants and animals that have accumulated over centuries. As the region’s rapid warming has caused more of the highest frozen layer to thaw, the organic matter has been decomposing and emitting carbon dioxide and methane.
It is believed that permafrost contains about twice as much carbon as it does in the atmosphere. However, as noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year as part of its sixth assessment report, the size and timing of emissions from permafrost thawing are uncertain.
“This uncertainty has been a major barrier to the incorporation of permafrost emissions into global climate policy, “said Dr. Natali.
John Holdren, White House scientific adviser to the Obama administration and director of the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center, said better measures, used to develop improved models, “could help us not only build a better image. It will give us a better ability to project what is likely to happen in the future. “
Permafrost thawing not only has global effects. Locally across the Arctic it has caused roads, bridges, houses and other structures built on icy ground to become unstable and unusable. The melting of permafrost has also led to increased erosion, causing landslides and flooding.
The project will address these issues in coordination with some Alaska Native communities, said Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Institute of Justice. Some 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 relocation, he said, “to create a process where communities have the environmental data they need, based on their indigenous knowledge and science, to make these decisions about whether they may or may not stay where they are.
Dr. Natali said the permafrost thaw is already underway and people are affected: “People are moving their houses or have to build their houses to deal with it,” she said. “And there is no support for that.”
The project is funded through the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding group that is a branch of TED, the organization for sharing ideas.
“It’s a lot of money,” Dr. Holdren said, though perhaps not as much as some think because the $ 41 million is spread over six years. “And I think we’ll be able to do very well.”