Thawing Alaska permafrost alarms scientists

Key Points
  • Much of the permafrost that blankets Alaska is slowly thawing.
  • A group of researchers is taking core samples of permafrost.
  • Scientists think thawing could contribute as much as 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit to the planet's temperature.
Mary Tom walks down a wooden sidewalk on July 3, 2015 in Newtok, Alaska. Newtok is one of several remote Alaskan villages that is being forced to relocate due to warming tempertures which is causing the melting of permafrost, widening of rivers and the erosion of land and coastline.
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As the planet's temperatures continue what appears to be a steady march upward, scientists in northern Alaska are watching the ground beneath them melt away.

Now, a group of researchers is taking core samples of the ground to better understand what the effects of this process could be, according to The New York Times.

Much of the permafrost that blankets Alaska and other similarly cold northern regions of the planet is slowly thawing, changing the landscape and affecting the ecosystem in a number of ways.

As it happens, scientists are seeing a kind of self-reinforcing cycle take place: Permafrost is thawing due to climate change, and the thawing permafrost sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which contribute to more warming, and consequently, more permafrost thaw.

Permafrost is what it sounds like: layers of permanently frozen ground that contains plants and organic matter that froze before they could decompose.

As the ground warms — partly because of higher temperatures and phenomena like wildfires — the plant matter begins to decay, releasing gases such methane and carbon dioxide, which scientists have connected to rising atmospheric temperatures.

These scientists think the melting ground could contribute as much as 1.7 degrees to the planet's temperature, whether or not humans burn any more fossil fuels.

Read the full story in The New York Times.

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