June 20th 2019
The Tundra is vast. Just the extent in Canada alone is one million square miles, or about 30% of Canada’s land area. World wide, the tundra covers 8.9 million square miles, a region the size of North America.
Like most things relating to the Arctic, the nature of tundra is more diverse than people imagine. Merriam-Webster defines tundra as “a level or rolling treeless plain that is characteristic of arctic and subarctic regions, consists of black mucky soil with a permanently frozen subsoil, and has a dominant vegetation of mosses, lichens, herbs, and dwarf shrubs; also : a similar region confined to mountainous areas above timberline.”
Permanently frozen subsoil, or permafrost, is a wildly inaccurate name. Much of the far north has been frozen for thousands of years; where the tundra fades to taiga, steppe or boreal forest to the south, the low end of ‘permafrost’–ground that has been frozen for more than two years—is fairly common.
Scientists have been concerned about the state of the tundra for some time. Temperatures on the Canadian tundra have risen by 5.3C (9.5F) since 1990. The treeline has been steadily moving northward as a result, and areas of permafrost intermittency have expanded and increased. In some parts of central Québec and northern British Columbia, permafrost has already vanished altogether.
Vladimir E. Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks led a team to do a survey of the Canadian tundra on the southeastern shore of Prince Patrick Island by an abandoned military site on a cove with the touristy name of Mould Bay. At 76 north, there isn’t much between it and the north pole: Ellesmere Island, and that’s about it. Being in a somewhat sheltered spot, the weather isn’t as fierce as in much of the true north, but it still only enjoys three months a year of above-freezing temperatures, and average temps can reach -30F in the winter. So a foot below ground surface, permafrost is truly permanent.
Or so Romanovsky and his team thought. After all, that’s what they found on their previous visit, in the summer of 2016. Apparently Mould Bay wasn’t on the survey list this summer, but they spotted a break in the weather and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to land and take a look around.
What they found shocked them. Large areas of the permafrost around Mould Bay had melted, transforming the land from a flat icescape to a region of rolling hummocks, frost heaves, and countless little ponds and puddles. Submarine grasses had already secured a foothold in the watery microbiomes. Normally the latent cold in the ground prevented all but the most superficial thawing during the brief summers, but clearly that had changed. Indeed, the extent and depth of melting around Mould Bay was what was forecast for near the end of the century-2090. The team found it terrifying.
Tundra soil is largely organic plant matter, long dead but preserved by the permafrost. It is carbon rich, and not surprisingly, contains vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), all of which are potent greenhouse gases.
Mould Bay doesn’t represent all of the tundra any more than it does all of North America. But that wild amounts of melting are happening this far north and in a region that was still colder than most of the tundra is alarming. And we know frightening changes have been occurring over those millions of square miles; methane ‘volcanos’ in Siberia, bubbles of CO2 erupting in lakes in the north boreal, methane in tundra lakes (which burn fiercely when lit) and elevated levels of N2O throughout the taiga.
It may also explain the unexpected jump in world wide CO2 atmospheric concentrations, 414.2, a jump of 3.7ppm from 2018 and more than double the average increase in concentrations over the previous twenty years. That was an unpleasant surprise.
We need a lot more data from the tundra and taiga regions to know just how serious the situation is, and how immediate the disaster will be as a result.
We had already ensured that we have brought a climate emergency down upon our heads. No matter what we do, we’ve ensured a temperature increase of 2.5C worldwide, and 4.5C in the far north. This means major climate disruptions, crop failures, floods, droughts and megastorms. It means bioregional collapses, including in the oceans. Millions of people will be displaced, and large regional wars are likely. The death toll just from what we’ve already ensured will be in the millions, and perhaps worse than millions.
Widespread melting in the north could DOUBLE annual emissions, That would put us above 500ppm in less than 20 years, and temperatures would climb by at least 5C. At that point, it’s no longer a climate emergency; it’s a climate catastrophe. Widespread ecosystem collapse, a likely end to technological civilization, and a death toll in the billions.
Scientists are racing around the tundra regions trying to get some sort of overview of the millions of square miles. They already knew changes were happening far harder and faster there due to the phenomenon of polar amplification, but they weren’t prepared for something as dramatic as Mould Bay.
There’s a temptation to regard Mould Bay as an exception, even an extreme, even though it was in a part of the tundra believed least likely to melt in the near future. But we know changes is coming to the true north faster and more severe than previously imagined. We probably won’t find many places as bad as Mould Bay, at least not this summer.
But Mould Bay isn’t an extreme. It isn’t an exception.
It’s a harbinger.