Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Environment/science reporter

Runaway global warming becomes a concern as permafrost melts


E&E News; Nov. 19, 2015

GOOSE LAKE, Northwest Territories — In a fragile landscape where footsteps leave an imprint for years, Jennifer Baltzer stood and surveyed the surrounding bog of green sphagnum moss. Black spruce trees tilted here and there like drunkards.

Using a metal rod, Baltzer, an ecologist with Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, pierced the ground near a spruce.

“You are jamming into ice there,” she said. Without that freeze, the unstable spruce trees would entirely lose their footing and drown.

Goose Lake is at the knife’s edge of climate change. Half a century ago, this region, which is 250 miles from the Arctic Circle, used to contain mostly permafrost, or perennially frozen ground. Today, the ground has partially thawed and the region is predominantly wetland.

The rapid changes have been catalyzed by climate change, which has warmed these environs by 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century. Scientists worry that, as permafrost thaws, a portion of the carbon stored in the northernmost ecosystems will be released to the atmosphere and trigger runaway global warming. The biggest threat at present is posed not by the frozen tundras of the Arctic, but by the soils of the boreal — the southern reaches of the deep freeze in Canada, Alaska and other parts of the world — like at Goose Lake, where the permafrost is thin and sporadic, the soil temperature close to melting point, and the land already disturbed by oil and gas exploration.

Baltzer and her fellow scientists are based at a nearby research camp named Scotty Creek, where they are studying how permafrost melt is reverberating through the landscape. They begin each March, snowmobiling like lynxes over blankets of snow. As the sun gets stronger and the ice melts, lakes become transport routes for canoeing graduate students. By September, snow blankets the ground again and the scientists pull up their tents, dismantle their makeshift bench press (two 40-pound sandbags hung on a log) and head home for the year.