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COUNTDOWN

CO2 Budget Depletion

A THAWING ARCTIC LANDSCAPE RELEASES MORE GREENHOUSE GAS

THE RISK

PERMAFROST THAW RELEASES SUNK CARBON. The Arctic’s permanently frozen ground - home to enormous amounts of trapped carbon - is warming quickly as the global climate changes. The thawing soil is expected to release about 18 billion tonnes of CO2 for every 1°C of warming into the future and has the potential to unleash vast amounts (200 Peta-tonnes) of methane directly into the atmosphere - a potent greenhouse gas that is currently frozen as clathrates within soil, wetlands and subglacially across the Arctic.

Research by Woodwell indicates that emissions from permafrost thaw this century could be on par with continued emissions by Japan or as high as continued emissions by the United States (Natali, Rogers, 2021). This means that permafrost thaw emissions could use up 25-40% of the remaining carbon budget to stay below 2°C (Natali, Rogers, 2021).

SEE THE DATA

A HOTTER, DRIER ARCTIC DRIVES POLLUTING WILDFIRES. The Arctic - now heating up to four times faster than the world as a whole - has experienced two extreme summers of large-scale wildfires in recent years. Wildfires in Siberia burned six million hectares (about the size of Lithuania) and, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, released 800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, which is approximately equivalent to the yearly emissions of Germany.

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THAWING PERMAFROST COULD EXPOSE TOXINS FROM CONTAMINATED LAND. Research by Langer et al (2023) has found a “serious environmental threat, which is exacerbated by climate change in the near future”. Thawing permafrost could expose between 13,000 and 20,000 contaminated sites in permafrost regions of the Arctic. As the permafrost thaws, as a result of  rapid Arctic warming, the risk of contamination and mobilisation of toxic substances increases. It is possible that approximately “1100 industrial sites and 3500 to 5200 contaminated sites located in regions of stable permafrost will start to thaw before the end of this century”. The study advises that climate change needs to be accounted for in long-term planning for contaminated sites in the Arctic.

Thawing permafrost releases tons of stored carbon dioxide and methane into our atmosphere. Additionally, we’ve found viable viruses in the frozen–or once frozen–ground, which have sparked fears of a pre-historic pandemic for which we have no immunity or vaccine. These two topics are enough to scare most climate researchers! There is, however, a third class of hidden–and truly malevolent–material: Toxic waste.  

Permafrost, as its name implies, was seen as permanently frozen and thus became the burial grounds for toxic waste. In part, this frozen ground was seen as ‘safe’, but there were also justice questions, in that much of this land was inhabited by Indigenous peoples. 

Today, the Arctic is among the most polluted places in which toxic cocktails of heavy metals, sludge, household rubbish and even radioactive waste are leaching into the environment. As the permafrost thaws, these chemicals get into the groundwater and can make their way around the world. 

Novaya Zemlya, for example, was one of two primary nuclear testing areas for the USSR during the Cold War. It was there that the world’s largest nuke, Tsar Bomba, was detonated. 

Upwards of 20,000 sites throughout the Arctic have been identified as being in need of toxic clean up. 3,500 to 5,200 of these are in ground that will have thawed by century’s end. This means that tonnes of devastating pollution are being released into the world where they are already threatening and killing ecosystems and critters globally.  

Much of what we are experiencing in these toxic thaws is another disastrous facet of our fossil fuel addiction. Some groups, such as ACAP (Arctic Contaminants Action Program) are working to clean up the toxic waste. Luckily, however, the same solutions that shape our path to 1.5C are also those that control the substances put into the Arctic. To see how you can act to ensure no more toxins are pushed into the polar zones, check out our Solutions page.  

SOOT: GET THE DIRT ON ARCTIC SHIPPING. 
Black carbon – soot – is formed through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. It is one of the main forms of particulate pollution globally and was the first pollutant to be connected with negative environmental impacts. It has significant health risks to humans and ecosystems, and like many things, its appearance in the Arctic is particularly troublesome. 
 
As many as 640,000 to 4,900,000 early deaths could be prevented annually if existing black carbon mitigation techniques were employed. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO) cites it as a possible human carcinogen, and exposure is associated with decreased cardiac and lung function. 
 
Although headlines today often associate black carbon with ships and increased interest in the Northern Sea Route, the predominant sources traditionally have been biofuel and industrial emissions in southern Asia. Backman et al. (2021) found that black carbon aerosols can travel from South Asia to the Arctic in only 7 days. According to Li et al (2021), the warming impacts that the black carbon can have through the greater atmospheric patterns cannot be overstated. This means that, while cutting soot from Arctic sources, such as shipping, is critical, black carbon will still get into the Arctic through atmospheric transport where it can have the same magnified impacts. 
 

Once in the atmosphere, black carbon exacerbates warming by absorbing heat. It can alter patterns of cloud cover and precipitation far beyond its immediate reach. In the polar regions, it has additional dangers in that, when on snow and ice, it has a heating capacity through both lowering the local albedo and absorbing heat, thereby leading to further albedo loss and warming. The Arctic Council found that Arctic states are responsible for ten percent of global black carbon emissions but up to 30% of warming associated with black carbon. 
 
What makes black carbon an exciting topic to study? Unlike gases like methane or CO2, black carbon has a very short lifespan in the atmosphere–typically lasting 5-12 days (whereas CO2 can remain up to one thousand years). This means that cutting its emission can have very immediate effects curbing climate change. 
 
The Clean Arctic Alliance is a team of 20 non-profit organisations aiming to reduce the impact of black carbon in the Arctic through legislation. With black carbon comprising as much as 20% of shipping’s global warming potential, empowering governments to take action is a critical step. Want to know how else you can help? Click here to read about solutions and contact your local lawmaker or shout out to them on social media! 

IPCC FINDINGS

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world’s most authoritative source on climate change. It reviews all published literature to provide comprehensive and objective scientific information.

AS PERMAFROST THAWS, A CARBON VAULT IS UNLOCKED

The Arctic’s permanently frozen ground is thawing quickly and, thanks to climate-affected warmer, dryer soil, is increasingly prone to fires, according to the UN’s latest special report on climate science. Half of all Arctic land (not including land under permanent ice sheets and glaciers) is frozen as permafrost, but, thanks to climate change, the frozen ground has warmed by more than a quarter of a degree Celsius every year between 2007 and 2016.

  • Temperatures in permanently frozen Arctic ground between 10 to 20 metres deep have reached record highs in recent decades.
  • The volume of frozen soil within the upper three meters of this permafrost ground is expected to decrease by about 25% for every 1°C of global warming into the future.
  • Thawing permafrost in mountainous areas is expected to make slopes less stable and rockslides more common.
  • Weather conditions favourable to wildfires are expected to occur more often in many regions of the world as the planet warms.
  • So-called low-probability “unprecedented extremes,” such as wildfires in parts of the Arctic, are expected to become less rare.

PERMAFROST THAW

Enormous areas of permanently frozen ground across the Arctic have warmed by more than a quarter of a degree Celsius every year between 2007 and 2016. These surface soil and pockets of deeper ground in these fast-thawing permafrost regions are among the largest storehouses of carbon in the world, holding between 1.4 and 1.6 trillion tonnes of the greenhouse gas—equivalent to up to 37 years of current total global emissions.

ARCTIC WILDFIRE EMISSIONS

DATA SOURCE

Charts best viewed in landscape mode, rotate your phone to explore this chart.

Arctic wildfires are an example of a powerful feedback loop. Fires are made more likely by hotter and drier weather caused by climate change. More fires emit more CO2, driving even faster climate change. 2019, 2020, and 2021 saw the highest CO2 emissions from wildfires in almost 20 years.

Use the tools on the top right hand side to zoom in on the graph to see data in more detail. You can also turn elements on and off by selecting from the legend on the right hand side.

ARCTIC RISK INDICATORS

The following gauges show up-to-date data regarding key indicators in the Arctic. These indicators clearly point to the crisis at hand.

Greenland rate of ice loss
13 million l/s
on average
13 million tonnes/s
on average
Arctic Sea Ice Extent
435,999 km²
below 1981-2010 average on 13-Apr-2024
168,339 mi²
below 1981-2010 average on 13-Apr-2024
Arctic Amplification
4 times
faster than global average
Arctic 66N+ Wildfire emissions
-0.00 megatonnes CO₂e
CO₂e emissions in 2024 so far
Arctic Air Quality (PM2.5)
3.68 microgram per cubic meter
on 14-Apr-2024
Global mean Sea Level
3.4mm/year
since 1993