The bank for a changing world

Permafrost thaw: assessing the risks to our climate

  • 22.12.2014

A Canadian/French consortium, coordinated by the Takuvik Laboratory, a joint project by Laval University in Canada and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), with the support of the BNP Paribas Foundation, is running a project – Acceleration of Permafrost Thaw (APT) by Snow-Vegetation Interactions –designed to study the links between fast thawing of the permafrost and disruptions to Earth’s climate. The phenomenon of permafrost thaw is as yet little understood and is not taken properly into account in the climate models being used today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[1].

The permafrost – areas of soil or rock that remain frozen all year round – currently stores an estimated 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of double the total amount of carbon currently contained in the earth’s atmosphere. Thawing of the permafrost, triggered by global warming, is likely to result in the release of this trapped carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4)[2]. The release of these gases may lead to an enormous amplification of the ‘greenhouse effect’, setting in motion a cycle of positive reinforcement of planetary climate change.

The strength of this reinforcement cycle cannot be estimated with certainty today because the processes involved in the speed of permafrost thaw and the release of the trapped carbon are not sufficiently understood and therefore not properly accounted for in current climate modelling.

Improving understanding of permafrost thaw

In order to refine the current climate models, the APT project team will attempt to make a precise forecast of temperature changes in the permafrost, forecast the emissions of ‘greenhouse gases’ generated by permafrost thaw, and quantify the permafrost-climate change reinforcement cycle.

The project will be coordinated by Florent Dominé, based at the Takuvik research laboratory, which has been set up jointly by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Laval University in Quebec. The project will also be able to use the experimental stations run by the Centre for Northern Studies.

This will provide the teams with optimal access to the Canadian Arctic and help to increase collaboration – in terms of experiments, modelling and remote sensing – between the French and Canadian teams working on the snow and permafrost. The project has a budget of €1,600,000 over three years. The BNP Paribas Foundation is providing a grant of €560,000 over this same period.

General view of typical permafrost landscape (Laure Cailloce / CNRS)
Palsas: low, often oval, frost heaves which contain permanently frozen ice lenses, characteristically found in areas with discontinuous permafrost; in such areas they may be the only reliable surface evidence of permafrost.

A social project aided by citizen participation

The issue of the thawing permafrost affects the whole world, but most particularly the Inuit people, whose habitat and food supplies are likely to be completely overturned.

The APT project team intend to include the Inuit community as a stakeholder in the project. Among other things, schools in the Inuit villages in Nunavik (Canadian Arctic) will be equipped with tools to enable students to gather data on ground temperature and snow density. This valuable work will help the researchers, who cannot be ‘on the spot’ at all times.

In addition, a website is being set up to enable students to share the data collected and help to work out how the Inuit communities can adapt to climate change in terms of the specific issues they face.


[1] IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is made up of around 2,500 scientists who work on issues relating to climate change

[2] CH4: Methane is a greenhouse gas which has a ‘warming’ effect 28 times that of CO2 over a one hundred year timespan.