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Permafrost: We Will Miss You When You're Gone?

In Greek mythology, the Arctic was known as Hyperborea, a utopia home to an immortal race who lived within reach of the gods. Where the climate was temperate, with white swans gliding across unfrozen lakes and poplar trees that dripped amber beneath a yearlong sun bringing abundant harvests. That's not the Arctic we know in fact most of it is slowly melting away, well not exactly slowly but slow enough so that most people can ignore the looming catastrophe the loss of the arctic will bring.

According to Politico, Russians are the natural successors to the hyperboreans or so they believe. Putin has said that the region is “a concentration of practically all aspects of national security — military, political, economic, technological, environmental and that of resources.” About 2 million Russians live in the Arctic, meaning Russian citizens comprise more than half of the global Arctic population. The Russian coastline accounts for 50 percent of global Arctic Ocean coastline. And 10 percent of the national GDP and 20 percent of Russia’s exports lie within the Arctic Circle. Not long ago, Moscow State University academics sought to rename the North Polar Sea the “Russian Ocean.”

That pursuit of ownership takes on a new urgency today because Russia remains existentially threatened by thawing permafrost, atop which 60 percent of its civilian and energy sector infrastructure sits unstable, so Russia is trying to find new ways to reshape the region in its favor before it reshapes the country. And the losses in Ukraine (together with the sanctions pressuring its economy) are forcing it to look for dominance and control elsewhere. In many inland Arctic regions, surface air temperatures have warmed 0.2°C or 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the past 30 years. In some regions of Russia, in particular in Siberia, the acceleration rate of annual-mean temperature is 5 times higher than that of the global temperature. As permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing this material. This process releases greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. When permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These newly-unfrozen microbes could make humans and animals very sick.

Though people do live in permafrost regions, such as Siberia, Canada, and Alaska, building on top of permafrost can be risky. Buildings raise the temperature of the ground beneath them, which can thaw permafrost and cause the building to sink into the mud. What can no longer be denied is that permafrost is melting…fast! It is advancing quickly due to climate change and has reached a critical point, which will have serious consequences for our future. This previously permanently frozen ground, located in circumpolar areas in Canada, Alaska, Siberia and elsewhere, has acted as a carbon sink for thousands of years and if it thaws it could release large amounts of this gas, amplifying the problem of global warming to unprecedented levels.

One thing that will happen is that the homes we live in will have to be more like the model of an Earthship home to compensate for changing oxygen levels and tropical climes expanding as far North as Seattle Washington! Most of the Earth's permafrost is found in the northern hemisphere - Siberia, Tibet, Greenland, Alaska, etc.In fact, the situation is worse than previously thought. An international team of climate scientists has studied the melting of the permafrost in Siberia and Canada and warned that it will thaw 20 % more than previous research anticipated.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, a global temperature increase of 1 ºC above pre-industrial levels would result in a loss of permafrost slightly larger than the size of India, which is almost four million km2, while a 2 ºC increase would result in the loss of 40 % of the world's permafrost.

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