Permafrost is thawing so fast it’s gouging holes in the Arctic
Global warming has shown that permafrost is not so permanent after all.
Residents of the small Alaskan town Kongiganak can no longer bury their dead. Their cemetery has become a marshy swamp, sucking graves into the once frozen ground.
On the island of Sarichef near the Bering Strait, the village of Shishmaref is shrinking so fast locals are considering relocating it entirely.
Global warming has shown that permafrost is not so permanent after all. And as it begins to melt, it is reshaping the Arctic.
The rapidly thawing ice layer is creating great sinkholes and hollows across the region as the ground begins to collapse in on itself. Erosion and landslides have become a problem without the ice that once held the soil together.
Permafrost – any area of land that remains frozen for at least two years – can vary from less than a metre thick to more than 1,500 metres. Some of it is tens of thousands of years old.
In some areas, it is simply frozen rock. But in other parts, soils and organic matter have acted like a sponge and taken in water which has subsequently frozen. As ice, water takes up a larger volume than its liquid form, but once melted, great pits are created in the land.
A problem multiplied
But the problem extends beyond an increasingly pock-marked landscape.
Scientists have known for years that melting permafrost will release greenhouse gases stored within and under it, creating a climate change feedback loop with the potential to warm our planet even faster. Rather than acting as a carbon sink, permafrost becomes a source of emissions.
Melting permafrost creates a vicious circle of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
But the abrupt melting of the permafrost layer in some places, caused by warmer polar temperatures, could mean far more carbon is released than previously estimated, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience.
Less than one-fifth of the permafrost zone is likely to see this abrupt thawing, but its impact on the surrounding landscape means up to half of permafrost carbon could be affected.
Existing climate change models are based on gradual thawing of the permafrost layer caused by seasonal temperature fluctuations and fail to take into account the impact of more rapid thawing. This means we need to put in place measures to counteract human-induced emissions more quickly than we thought.
But David Olefeldt, who coauthored the paper in Nature Geoscience, warns against over-dramatizing the problem.
"The permafrost carbon feedback is not the proverbial climate bomb – but is it an important climate change accelerator which we do need to take into account.
"Future greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost [will be] significantly smaller than current human greenhouse gas emissions, but emissions from permafrost thaw are large enough that they are important to take into consideration when projecting future climate change and when setting emissions targets for international negotiations."
Getting a handle on warming temperatures at our earth's poles is crucial if we are to keep global warming within agreed limits.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
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