Friday, November 6, 2009

Permafrost’s future in Alaska looks poor, but the forecast isn’t all bad

Jeff Richardson in the Daily News-Miner (Fairbanks, Alaska): Alaska will probably see most of its surface permafrost vanish by the end of this century, but researchers believe vast areas of frozen soil will remain deeper underground even as air temperatures increase.

The future of Alaska’s permafrost is being closely watched by scientists because of the implications it may have on the climate as a whole. Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, discussed evolving permafrost research this week during a teleconference through the Alaska Center of Climate Assessment and Policy.

Using models that predict a 4 to 6 degree rise in Alaska air temperatures by 2100, Romanovsky projects slowly vanishing areas of permafrost in the state. Dozens of bore holes are being monitored throughout Alaska to see how permafrost reacts to changing temperatures.

The research has both short-term and long-term significance. Unstable thawing permafrost can cause enormous damage to buildings and other infrastructure, and it releases gases that are widely believed to contribute to global warming. “It could be a significant player in the carbon cycle in the atmosphere,” Romanovsky said.

Virtually all of Alaska is a potential permafrost region, with only Southeast, the Aleutians and Kodiak Island spared from common permafrost patches. The North Slope and Brooks Range are almost entirely blanketed with permafrost, and most of Interior Alaska is constantly frozen.

That’s expected to change in the next century. Romanovsky and his team of UAF researchers predict a warming trend that will gradually thaw most of the state’s surface permafrost. By the end of the century, only the North Slope will remain frozen….

The Koyukuk River in Alaska, shot by Bill Raften, Wikimedia Commons, US Fish and Wildlife

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