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What’s hidden in Arctic ice? - Brendan Rogers and Jessica Howard

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In June 2022, a gold miner in the Canadian Yukon made a remarkable discovery. While working on the traditional lands of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, he uncovered the exceptionally well-preserved, frozen remains of a wooly mammoth calf that died 30,000 years ago. And this find isn’t the only of its kind. Brendan Rogers and Jessica Howard uncover secrets buried in the Arctic permafrost.

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Permafrost thaw in a warming Arctic

As you learned in this video, the Arctic is warming three-to-four times faster than the rest of the world, causing carbon-rich permafrost to thaw. Permafrost is perennially frozen ground that underlies the Arctic tundra and large swaths of boreal forest. In the far north, permafrost has provided critical habitat and life-sustaining structure for millennia, but when it thaws, it can trigger a powerful, greenhouse gas-emitting feedback loop with local and global ramifications. Learn more about the permafrost ecosystem by reading this article, What is permafrost?, and by checking out The Big Thaw. Discover more about warming trends in the Arctic-boreal regions by exploring the Arctic Thaw app.

As pan-Arctic warming transforms the region, permafrost thaw is threatening the lifeways of Arctic residents. Right now, Indigenous communities are being forced to make extremely difficult decisions about where and how they can live in order to protect themselves from the compounding threats of climate hazards like permafrost thaw, flooding, and erosion. Read more about integrating Indigenous knowledge and social and physical sciences to coproduce knowledge and support community-based climate adaptation. Roughly 11% of near-surface permafrost has been lost in the last 30 years. In Alaska alone, where Alaska Native peoples have been the stewards and caretakers of their traditional homelands since time immemorial, more than 70 communities face imminent displacement and other threats from permafrost thaw, flooding, or erosion. As much as $5.5 billion worth of infrastructure in Alaska is expected to be damaged as a result of climate change this century. 

Want to learn even more about permafrost thaw and the local to global impacts of this dangerous climate hazard? Enroll in Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic—a free online course offered by Woodwell Climate Research Center and FutureLearn.
 
Furthermore, permafrost stores an estimated 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon – almost double the amount already in the Earth’s atmosphere and three times more than has been released by humans through burning fossil fuels since the start of the industrial revolution. When the frozen ground begins to thaw, it can release that carbon in the form of powerful greenhouse gasses—carbon dioxide and methane. The release of those greenhouse gases triggers what’s known as a positive feedback loop. For example, when permafrost thaw releases heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, these heat-trapping gasses cause more warming, generating a self-reinforcing cycle. Learn more about the eddy covariance method, the technique that scientists use to measure atmospheric carbon fluxes, by watching this video: Eddy Covariance: Measuring an Ecosystem's Breath.

Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are expected to be anywhere from 30 to more than 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100. If the higher end of this range proves to be correct, emissions from permafrost alone could make it essentially impossible to limit the rise of global-average temperature to 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial value–the aspirational target embraced by the 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As much as 40% of humanity’s remaining carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5°C is at risk of being claimed by emissions from permafrost thaw.

Read more about the importance of incorporating permafrost into climate mitigation and adaptation policy. You can also learn more about permafrost emissions by watching this video.

So, while finding woolly mammoths, cave bears, and other prehistoric animals may seem exciting, the environmental conditions necessary to make these discoveries are alarming symptoms of an unhealthy planet. What can be done about permafrost thaw?

Learn more about the Permafrost Pathways project, a new initiative working on equitable solutions to address permafrost thaw for Arctic justice and global climate. Watch Woodwell Climate Research Center’s Dr. Sue Natali, Permafrost Pathways project lead, on the TED stage introducing the project.
 
Even with the most ambitious climate action, permafrost will continue to thaw, to some extent, for decades. But the decisions made now and over the next several years can make all the difference in securing a livable future on a habitable planet.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Jessica Howard, Brendan Rogers
  • Director Denys Spolitak
  • Narrator Susan Zimmerman
  • Music Cem Misirlioglu, Greg Chudzik
  • Sound Designer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Script Producer Cella Wright
  • Script Editor Charles Wallace

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