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Thawing Permafrost in Arctic


According to a New Study, “Thawing Permafrost poses an environmental threat to thousands of sites with legacy industrial contamination”, thawing of Permafrost may result in the spread of toxic substances in the Arctic Region.


GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About Permafrost
  2. Findings of the Study
  3. Implications of Thawing Permafrost

About Permafrost

Permafrost is a type of soil or rock that remains below freezing point (0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least two consecutive years.

Location and Occurrence:

  • Found in regions with cold climates, such as the Arctic and high mountainous areas.
  • Extends across large portions of Alaska, Canada, Russia, and other northern regions.


  • Consists of a combination of frozen soil, rock, organic matter, and ice.
  • Can contain varying proportions of sand, silt, clay, and organic material.


  • Active Layer: The uppermost layer that thaws during summer and refreezes during winter.
  • Permanently Frozen Layer: The layer of soil or rock that remains frozen year-round.

Role and Importance:

  • Acts as a natural freezer, preserving ancient plant and animal remains, including mammoths and other prehistoric species.
  • Influences the stability of slopes, the availability of water, and the development of ecosystems.
  • Plays a crucial role in shaping the landscape.

Climate Change Impact:

  • Thawing of permafrost due to climate change is a significant concern.
  • Rising temperatures can lead to permafrost melting, causing ground subsidence and landslides.
  • Releases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere.
  • Has implications for the global climate system, biodiversity, and local communities.

Infrastructure and Human Impacts:

  • Thawing permafrost can damage infrastructure, including buildings, roads, and pipelines built on previously stable ground.
  • Requires special engineering considerations for construction in permafrost regions.
  • Affects indigenous communities that rely on permafrost for traditional practices and livelihoods.

Findings of the Study:

  • Industrial activities in permafrost regions have likely generated 13,000 to 20,000 contaminated sites across 4,500 facilities.
  • Currently, approximately 1,000 industrial sites and 2,200 to 4,800 contaminated sites are at risk of destabilization due to thawing permafrost.
  • Types of known industrial waste in the region include drilling and mining wastes, toxic substances like drilling muds and fluids, mine waste heaps, heavy metals, spilled fuels, and radioactive waste.
  • The Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the global average due to climate change, causing rapid permafrost thaw that poses a risk to industrial and contaminated sites.
  • By the end of this century, around 2,100 industrial sites and between 5,600 and 10,000 contaminated sites are threatened with destabilization.
  • The perception of the Arctic as a perpetually stable and untouched region is incorrect, as it houses numerous industrial facilities, such as oilfields, pipelines, mines, and military bases.
  • All this infrastructure is built on permafrost, and the toxic waste from these facilities has been buried in the permafrost with the assumption that it would remain locked away permanently.
  • However, with ongoing global warming, the stability of the permafrost is compromised, posing a danger of contamination release.
  • The Arctic experienced increased development during the Cold War, serving as a hub for resource extraction and military operations.
  • Consequently, industrial and toxic waste accumulated on or within the permafrost, without adequate measures taken to remove it.

Implications of Thawing Permafrost:

  • Thawing permafrost leads to the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
  • According to a 2022 NASA report, Arctic permafrost alone holds an estimated 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon, including methane and carbon dioxide, which is significantly more carbon than the world emitted from fossil fuel emissions in 2019.
  • Frozen plant matter within the permafrost does not decay, but when it thaws, microbes within the dead plant material begin breaking it down, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Thawing permafrost can unleash dormant viruses and bacteria, as highlighted in a 2022 study by Columbia University.
  • Some of these viruses and bacteria could be entirely new or ancient ones for which humans lack immunity and cures, or they may include diseases that society has eliminated, such as smallpox or the bubonic plague.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024