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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

IPY: Observations indicate a warming of permafrost regions across the Northern Hemisphere -- danger of methane being released

Observations indicate a warming of permafrost regions across the Northern Hemisphere

February 24, 2009 — The International Polar Year provides a unique opportunity to assess the global State and Fate of Permafrost on a Warming Planet. Recent observations indicate a warming of permafrost in many northern and mountain regions with resulting degradation of ice-rich and carbon-rich permafrost. Permafrost temperature has increased by 1-2 °C in northern Russia during the last 30-35 years. This observed increase is very similar to what has been observed in Alaska where the detailed characteristic of the warming varies between locations, but is typically from 0.5 to 2°C. The last 30-years' warming in permafrost temperatures observed in the Russian North and Alaska has resulted in thawing of natural, undisturbed permafrost in areas close to the southern boundary of the permafrost zone. Erosion of coastal permafrost showed signs of increase in many parts of the Arctic with rates doubling over a period of fifty years in some coastal areas of Alaska.


Warming effects vary regionally, and depend on permafrost temperature, ground-ice content, surface conditions and climatic characteristics. These recent changes have implications for building foundations, roads, pipelines, erosion, and to an unknown degree on atmospheric composition. The permafrost-affected regions occupy 24% of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area and all glacier-free areas of Antarctica. To obtain a snapshot of ground temperatures, thawing rates, and organic carbon contents of the permafrost regions, the 26-member, International Permafrost Association (IPA) organized four coordinated IPY permafrost programmes that involve 50 individual projects from 28 countries and hundreds of researchers and students. Geographically, the programme includes both polar regions and covers the mountains and plateau regions of the mid- and low-latitudes.

imageA climate station and borehole site in Northern Alaska showing. Vlad Romanovsky (far left) explains the observations to a group of visitors.

Project 50: Permafrost Observatory Project: A Contribution to the Thermal State of Permafrost (TSP)
Project 33: Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Permafrost, Periglacial and Soil Environments (ANTPAS)
Project 90: Arctic Circumpolar Coastal Observatory Network (ACCO-Net)
Project 373: Carbon Pools in Permafrost Regions (CAPP)

The IPA-IPY goals are:
- Develop a network of permanent permafrost observatories
- Establish a sustainable data system
- Develop the next generation of permafrost researchers.

imagePlots summarizing the recent evolution of permafrost temperatures.

The major focus of the programmes are to observe and document current changes in permafrost conditions. These measurements serve as a baseline against which to evaluate future changes and to validate current models. Major existing networks include boreholes for ground temperature measurement (Thermal State of Permafrost: TSP), and seasonal thaw depth or active layer thickness (Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Network: CALM), both of which comprise the GCOS/GTOS Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost (GTN-P). Temperature measurements are being recorded in over 600 boreholes and the active layer thaw measured annually at over 150 circumpolar sites, many of which have historical measurements for establishing recent trends. The IPY resulted in drilling of more than 300 new boreholes in both the Northern Hemisphere and the Antarctic; the latter, a region where permafrost conditions are still poorly understood. The IPY provided the opportunity to expand the TSP and CALM-S networks mainly on the Antarctic Peninsula and in the Dry Valleys, and also to start a network of TSP permafrost boreholes with continuous temperature monitoring in the Svalbard and Norway.

imageDrilling in Crater Lake, Deception Island, Maritime Antarctic. Russian-Spanish-Portuguese-Argentinean collaboration in projects PERMAMODEL-PERMANTAR (January 2009, photo: Gonçalo Vieira)

The Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN) was organized during the IPY and has 646 members in 43 countries. Many students participated in the 136 International University Courses on Permafrost (IUCP) given in 17 countries.

Initial results of the IPY permafrost programmes and current knowledge and practices on permafrost science and engineering were presented at the Ninth International Conference on Permafrost in Fairbanks, Alaska, in summer 2008 ( Our IPY “snapshot” conclusions will be presented in June 2010 during the IPY Science Conference in Oslo and at the Third European Conference on Permafrost (EUCOP III) the following week at the University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS (

Additional information is available from contacts listed below (*attending the February 25 Science Forum), the IPA Secretariat, based at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, the IPA web site ( and from national programmes.

Prof. Vladimir Romanovsky, +1 907 474 7459
* Prof. Hanne H. Christiansen +47 90 04 11 26
Prof. Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten +49 331 288 2100 (IPA President)
Dr. Sharon Smith +1 613 947 7066
* Dr. Hugues Lantuit +49 331 288 2162
* Dr. Goncalo Teles Vieira +351-966475980
* Prof. Jeronimo Lopez
(* attending Feb 25 events)

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