Sweden is reporting thawing of permafrost in its Northern lowlands. The researchers blame warmer summers and more winter precipitation.
Abisko, the area that is affected, is known for its peat mires. The ground has become unstable and there’s danger of collapse. Sweden is not the only country in the Northern hemisphere which has permafrost on its soil. Roughly 25 percent of all land surface in the northern hemisphere is underlain by permafrost. Additionally, icy soil covers the entire Arctic.
There have been notable changes in Abisko. “At one of our sites, permafrost has completely disappeared from the greater part of the mire during the last decade,” says phsyical geographer Margareta Johansson at Lund University, who researched the area for a number of years.
Johansson says the instability problems can become sizable both locally and regionally, especially in areas with infrastructure, like cities. She predicts that lowland permafrost will shrink in northern Sweden and that that there might be no permafrost in Abisko at all in 50 years.
“With the present climate it is likely that the changes seen in permafrost in the Abisko area will also occur in other areas, and my study can therefore provide a basis for studies in other geographic areas that are next in line,” says Johansson.
Thawing permafrost can cause increased emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate that if the earth’s permafrost thaws, some 300 to 400 billion tonnes of methane might be released into the atmosphere.
Methane, CH4, is 62 times more aggressive than CO2, measured over a time span of 20 years and it’s 23 times more powerful when measured over one hundred years.
In addition to thawing permafrost, methane is released through deforestation, garbage dumps, rice production (between 50 and 100 million tonnes) and, believe it or not, through cow farts. Scientists in Germany have recently isolated the microbe which causes the methane emissions of rice plants.
Yet other scientists are researching how to extract methane from frozen areas and turn it into energy. One researcher, Katey Walter, says that several companies, including BMW are pioneering methane-to-energy technology.
The permafrost in the Abisko area is thawing both from above and from below. That is because of warmer summers and also of a thicker snow cover in winter. The snow acts as an insulating blanket, which means that the ground does not get as cold as it would under a thinner layer of snow. Between 1997 and 2007, Abisko saw 20 percent more precipitation compared to 1961 – 1990. The permafrost is also thawing from below. That is probably due to greater mobility in the groundwater.
As reported on GWIR, last year the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) called upon the Arctic nations (Canada, the United States, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) to work together to help deal with the challenges and adapt to changes that have already affected all aspects of Arctic ecology, including the northern oceans, ice sheets, snow, and permafrost.