What is permafrost

what is permafrost

Permafrost is a term used to describe a layer of soil or rock that is permanently frozen over a long period of time, usually for more than two consecutive years. This frozen layer is commonly found in cold regions of the planet, such as the Arctic, Siberia and some parts of Antarctica, as well as in high mountain regions. many people do not know well what is permafrost and much is being said about the dangers of thawing these soils.

In this article we are going to tell you what permafrost is, what are its characteristics and possible dangers in the face of thawing due to the increase in temperatures.

What is permafrost

ice melting

Layers of the Earth that have been frozen for hundreds, if not thousands of years, hide treasures and clues to our history. Among its materials are still present and weapons and implements from other times, human bones and even remains of mammoths have been found.

This frozen layer, known as permafrost, also it stores large amounts of carbon that has not been part of the cycle of terrestrial systems for centuries. Now, climate change threatens to melt that ice and release those stores into the atmosphere as gases, further exacerbating global warming.

Permafrost is defined as ground that remains completely frozen (ie at 0°C or below) for at least two consecutive years. Permafrost currently covers large areas of the planet. Only in the northern hemisphere covers more than 23 million square kilometers.

Permafrost is a combination of soil, rock, sand, and other minerals held together by ice. In the outermost layer there is a large amount of organic carbon, animal and plant remains that have not completely decomposed due to low temperatures.

Climate change threatens to upset this balance and melt the ice of the permafrost. In recent years it has lost power not only in the upper layers, but also in the deeper ones. The threat is particularly acute in the Arctic, a region that is warming three times faster than Earth's average.

Formation and characteristics

frozen ground

The formation of permafrost is mainly due to the low temperatures that prevail in these areas for long seasons, which allows the water present in the soil or rock freezes and remains solid throughout the year, even during the warmer months.

A key feature of permafrost is its crucial role in storing carbon and methane, which are greenhouse gases. The freezing of the soil traps these gases inside, preventing them from being released into the atmosphere. However, climate change and rising global temperatures are affecting permafrost significantly, causing it to thaw in many areas.

Consequences of melting permafrost

what is permaphros and its importance

One of the most obvious consequences of thawing permafrost is its effect on the soil. In places like Russia, Alaska, and Canada, millions of people live in cities built on (or once thought to be) permafrost. As the ice melts, the ground shrinks, endangering the structure of houses, roads and other infrastructure.

That's not the only way the loss of permafrost threatens local communities in these regions. Melt often leads to erosion, introducing new sediment into the river water, reducing water quality and affecting wildlife.

The melting of the permafrost will also have global consequences. Large amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere, threatening to accelerate climate change.

The truth is that this carbon is not part of the current cycles of terrestrial ecosystems and, therefore, it is not included in future climate projections. That's because, as the United Nations explains, while temperatures remain below freezing, the plant and animal material of the permafrost remains intact.

It wasn't until the thaw that the microbes began to break down and release greenhouse gases. This organic matter also contains mercury, other heavy metals, bacteria, and viruses: Microbes older than 400.000 years have been found in permafrost.

Many local communities are finding scientific and engineering solutions to combat coastal erosion and land subsidence. However, they affirm that it is necessary to solve the underlying problem and prevent it from melting.

This is possible through monitoring programs, field studies, scientific research and, above all, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to prevent the planet from continuing to warm.

Importance of permafrost staying frozen

It is critical that permafrost stays frozen due to its critical role in ecosystem balance and the planet's climate stability. Let's see what are the functions that maintain the balance while it is still frozen:

  • Carbon storage: The permafrost harbors enormous amounts of frozen organic matter, such as plants and animals that have been trapped and preserved for thousands of years. When permafrost thaws, this organic material decomposes, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases contribute significantly to global warming and climate change.
  • Climate regulation: The freezing of permafrost helps regulate the climate locally and globally. The frozen ground acts as a "cover" that prevents heat from penetrating deeper into the earth. This influences temperature patterns and water availability in these regions, directly affecting the flora, fauna, and human communities that depend on these ecosystems.
  • Soil stability: Frozen permafrost provides a solid foundation for the land, which is essential for maintaining the stability of human structures and infrastructure in cold areas. When permafrost thaws, the ground becomes softer and more susceptible to landslides, subsidence, and damage to buildings and roads.
  • Preservation of cultural heritage: Many indigenous communities have inhabited areas with permafrost for generations, and this frozen ground has served as a natural repository to preserve important archaeological artifacts and remains.
  • Biodiversity and ecosystems: The permafrost is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna adapted to these extreme conditions. Its thawing threatens to alter existing ecosystems, affecting wildlife and biological diversity in these regions.

I hope that with this information you can learn more about what permafrost is and what are the consequences of its melting.

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