The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet.
The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet. As a result, permafrost that is thousands of years old is now being lost to erosion. As measurements gathered on the Lena River by AWI experts show, the scale of erosion is alarming: every year, roughly 15 metres of the riverbanks crumble away. In addition, the carbon stored in the permafrost could worsen the greenhouse effect.
Today, the permafrost soils found on the Arctic coasts of Canada, Russia and Alaska, frozen for thousands of years, are increasingly eroding away due to the effects of waves and river currents – especially because the warm season there is steadily growing longer. As experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) have determined, this thawing has now taken on enormous proportions. By conducting a detailed analysis of historical satellite images from Siberia, Matthias Fuchs and his team were able to show that permafrost erosion in the Lena Delta has steadily worsened since the 1960s. Whereas in the 1960s the river, at a width of ca. 1.7 kilometres, gnawed away an average of five metres of land per year, between 2015 and 2018 that number rose to nearly 16 metres. In total the banks – more in some places, less in others – lost between 322 and 679 metres from 1965 to 2018.
The researchers focused their efforts on the 1.5-kilometre-long Sobo-Sise Cliff, a steep yedoma cliff from which permafrost plummets into a branch of the Lena River. At its highest point, it is 27 metres tall – as tall as a several-storey house. As Matthias Fuchs explains, “Major quantities of permafrost have been eroding away across the Arctic for many years now. Nevertheless, the Sobo-Sise Cliff is definitely a hotspot. There are very few other regions where the loss of land is so substantial.” The worrisome aspect: the fact that the thawing and permafrost loss have intensified so massively in the last several years.
Image: The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet. As a result, permafrost that is thousands of years old is now being lost to erosion. As measurements gathered on the Lena River by AWI experts show, the scale of erosion is alarming. (Credit: © AWI / Thomas Opel)