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Permafrost Collapse and the Global Ecosystem

Dr. Ben Abbott, plant and wildlife sciences professor, has been conducting research on permafrost collapse and the effects that it has on Arctic ecosystems and the global ecosystem as a whole.
Dr. Ben Abbott (left) has been researching permafrost collapse for over ten years.

Although separated by space and time, our emissions have a great impact on ecosystems across the globe, and those systems are responding. Plant and wildlife sciences professor, Dr. Ben Abbott, has been studying these ecosystem responses and recently published research with Dr. Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder, on permafrost collapse in arctic ecosystems.

Permafrost collapse is characterized by soil collapsing into rivers and/or large craters.

The research, featured in Nature and National Geographic, details the reality of the abrupt thaw, causing soil to collapse into rivers or leave massive craters, known as thermokarst. This rapid thawing poses a danger to those who live in arctic areas and can affect their livelihood.

Thermokarst formation not only affects those living in the arctic but the global ecosystem as a whole. As the climate warms, organic matter stored in the frozen soil for hundreds of years begins to rot, releasing hazardous gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. This can cause further climate change, resulting in an increase in permafrost climate feedback.

Permafrost climate feedback refers to a cycle of warming causing permafrost to thaw, emitting more hazardous gases and inducing further climate warming. Abbott has been researching and studying this vicious cycle for the last 10 years.

The visual effects of permafrost collapse can be astounding, resulting in massive craters.

“Greenhouse gases are so influential in determining the energy balance of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Abbott says. “We still have seen substantial [climate] warming coming from humans, and the worry is that we are going to trigger some of the large ecosystems feedbacks that we aren’t in control of.”

Although Abbott’s research has provided alarming results, he states that “the story isn’t all doom and gloom.” Compared to human emissions, permafrost climate feedback is relatively small, and the most effective solution to the problem is assessing and reducing our own emissions.