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The Arctic accounts for one sixth of the Earth’s landmass, spans 24 time zones, is home to 4 million people and is one of the most important, unique and irreplaceable ecosystems on the planet (Karaim, 2016). Its immense biodiversity and delicate network of ecosystems play an essential role in regulating the world’s climate by serving as a cooling system. However, due to global climate change, the Arctic’s wildlife, people, and resources are being threatened. Anthropogenic climate change has many negative impacts on the region. But, perhaps even more catastrophic is the release of huge amounts of methane that have been frozen in the Arctic landscape and are beginning to enter the atmosphere as temperatures rise and the region thaws. Methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, is being released through thawing permafrost and the formation of thermokarst lakes. Climate change will cause the Arctic region to release large amounts of planet-warming greenhouse gases which will lead to more warming, creating a positive feedback loop that will have profound consequences for the world. The region’s biodiversity, native people’s ways of life, and the global economy are all at risk as the Arctic becomes more vulnerable to change because of climate change that is being magnified by natural methane emissions from thermokarst lakes. It is essential that Arctic thermokarst lakes are properly considered as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in order to fully address the issue of global climate change because anthropogenic emissions are no longer the only concern.
Since the 1970s scientists and researchers have been tracking a steady decrease in Arctic sea ice as the region’s culture and landscapes are being shaped by climate change. For the people and wildlife that live in this region, climate change is not a debate but a daily reality since the Arctic is more impacted by this global issue than any other place in the world. But changing conditions in this region will lead to problems that will affect the entire planet because of how valuable the Arctic is. The presence of sea ice allows for the reflection of sunlight which keeps temperatures cooler at the poles and helps regulate the climate (NOAA). As sea ice melts, more solar energy is absorbed by the oceans which increases temperatures, causes more melting, disrupts ocean circulation and further exacerbates climate change.
Diminishing Arctic sea ice has far reaching consequences with one of them being the thawing of permafrost. Permafrost is the layer of ground that is frozen year-round and it is beginning to gradually thaw as a result of climate change. As this layer thaws, it “wakes up microbes in the soil that decompose soil organic matter and as a result release carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere” (Gray, 2018). Methane is approximately twenty times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and its release will result in a positive feedback loop of increased thawing, methane emissions, and climate change (Connor, 2010). Abrupt thawing is a process that occurs under thermokarst lakes as permafrost thaws and increases the release of ancient carbon stored in the soil 125 to 190 percent compared to gradual thawing alone (Gray, 2018). As warming soils melt ground ice, the surface beings to collapse and form pools of water which accelerate permafrost thaw and allow for the pools to from larger lakes. The expanding thermokarst lakes provide food for microbes that produce methane and carbon dioxide (University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2018). Current global climate models do not account for thermokarst lake emissions but when included, it becomes clear that their impact is on the same level as land-use change which is the second-largest source of human induced warming (James et al., 2016). There is no stopping the carbon emissions from abrupt thawing in thermokarst lakes which is why is it essential that climate models consider their effect; otherwise, it is not a complete representation of greenhouse gas emissions which means society cannot effectively evaluate how much emissions need to be reduced in order to limit climate change.
The Arctic region is unique because when organisms die, they are frozen which stops the carbon cycle for thousands of years. Some of this ancient carbon that is beginning to enter the atmosphere is estimated to be 2,000 to 43,000 years old (Gray, 2018). A recent NASA study that uses data from the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) shows that carbon in Arctic tundra ecosystems is spending 13 percent less time in frozen soil than it did 40 years ago (Smith, 2018). The carbon cycle is speeding up and is beginning to resemble that of a boreal ecosystem rather than a tundra. In the summer months, the upper layer of Arctic permafrost thaws and allows microbes to break down ancient carbon contained in previously frozen organic matter. This process releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and as temperatures increase, the amount of time carbon spends frozen in the soil decreases, disturbing the delicate balance between greenhouse gas emissions and their removal from the atmosphere.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and a major contributor to Arctic climate change. Carbon dioxide is perhaps the most significant human-emitted greenhouse gas; however, methane is more potent with a greater ability to trap heat. Scientists are particularly concerned about atmospheric methane levels because it has a “large natural emission component” (Abraham, 2015). Much of the natural emissions are coming from thawing permafrost in the Arctic. If the permafrost layer continues to undergo the process of abrupt thaw, it could double the amount of carbon present in the atmosphere (Connor, 2010) which means catastrophic changes will continue to occur in the Arctic region, affecting the environment, cultures, and the economy of the area.
In the presence of developing thermokarst lakes, the permafrost layer thaws deeply and rapidly, releasing large amounts of methane while creating many environmental impacts. The Alaska Blackfish is one of the many species being affected by thawing permafrost and methane emissions. This species of fish is able to survive in hypoxic zones by using their “modified esophagus to obtain atmospheric oxygen” (Campbell et al., 2014). Thermokarst lakes are often home to the Alaska Blackfish; however, as methane is oxidized by microbes, hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic to fish, is often produced resulting in widespread fish kills. Despite the negative impact of methane on the Alaska Blackfish, these emissions are also contributing to the survival of the species by “inhibiting ice formation and producing open holes in ice” (Campbell et al., 2014). Permafrost thaw and methane emissions are altering populations of species and their relationships with the environment which poses a potential threat to the biodiversity and ecosystems of the Arctic region.
As the permafrost melts, it makes land more susceptible to erosion. Data collected over the past 50 years shows that “coastal erosion has caused the shoreline to recede as much as 0.9 km (0.56 mi)” (James, 2016). Coastal erosion decreases fertile land area and can force Native Alaskan villages to abandon their traditional lands due to disappearing coastline and increased flooding. Besides a loss of land, coastal erosion also increases pollution and sedimentation in rivers and oceans which can clog waterways and damage marine ecosystems by causing declines in fish and other species populations (Karaim, 2016).
The major environmental impact of thawing permafrost, thermokarst lakes and their methane emissions is the exacerbation of climate change. Permafrost has acted as a “lid” to massive reservoirs of methane but as thermokarst lakes form, holes are appearing in the permafrost and methane is leaking into the atmosphere. There is approximately 1,500 billion tons of carbon locked up in frozen permafrost which is almost double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere right now (Gray, 2018).
Methane emissions from thermokarst lakes exacerbate climate change and ultimately leave the Arctic region vulnerable to tourism, potential exploitation of natural resources, and environmental issues that will affect inhabitant’s ways of life. The societies that exist in the Arctic have developed in harmony with the surrounding ecosystems and are now facing unprecedented shifts in their culture, traditions, knowledge, and livelihoods. Some people hope that industrial development will boost the region’s economy and create more jobs while others believe that the environmental consequences will outweigh these potential benefits. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion have already forced some Native villages to abandon their traditional lands.
Increased methane levels due to thermokarst lakes are beginning to impact indigenous people’s ways of life. Entire communities have been dependent on hunting animals that are now decreasing in population due to warming in the region. However, population levels of hunted species are not the most concerning issue for hunters in the region. Access is the biggest challenge hunters face a result of thawing permafrost and melting sea ice. Travel via sea ice is becoming increasingly dangerous (Huntington et al., 2017) and hunting seasons are being dramatically reduced. Native people’s relationship with the natural environment is also being shaped by the formation of thermokarst lakes and the thawing of the permafrost layer. The disappearance of the frozen permafrost has made a once culturally significant practice of preserving meats for the winter in the frozen ground nearly impossible (Huntington et al., 2017). Thawing soil also threatens infrastructure as roads can being to warp and buildings sink into the ground (Karaim, 2016). The accelerated rate of climate change in the Arctic also leaves coastlines vulnerable to erosion which is forcing entire communities to abandon lands that have been a part of their cultures for generations (Karaim, 2016). Overall, the people that inhabit the Arctic region are being forced to adapt to the changing climate that is being exacerbated by thermokarst lakes and their effects on accelerating warming temperatures.
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