Five new studies that change our understanding of permafrost

On July 16, 2007, a rare bolt of lighting touched down on a remote, lake-studded expanse of tundra about 350 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. It had been a hot, dry summer, and the tundra ignited into what would eventually become its largest blaze in 5,000 years. Over the next three months, the Anaktuvuk River Fire scorched an area the size of Cape Cod. Its scar was visible from space.

In its wake, scientists flocked to the burned tundra to find out how plants, wildlife and soils respond to an ecological regime that’s likely to become the new normal: a hotter, drier and more fire-prone Arctic.

Now, the results from those studies (and numerous others) are beginning to trickle in. And while some are of limited interest to those of us below the Arctic Circle, discoveries about thawing permafrost have the potential to impact people and environments the world over. That’s because permafrost — the frozen soil that can stretch as much as 650 meters below the tundra’s surface — contains a third of the planet’s land-based carbon.

Until recently, relatively little was known about the repercussions of thawing permafrost. Today, as its role in global carbon cycles grows increasingly apparent, a slew of studies are transforming our understanding of the north’s frozen soil.

Here are five of the most notable…

 

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