Donors pledge $41 million to monitor melting Arctic permafrost

Climate scientists, policy experts and environmental justice advocates announced a major project on Monday to better understand the contribution of thawing permafrost to global warming and help Arctic communities cope with its effects.

Led by the Massachusetts-based Woodwell Climate Research Center, the 6-year, $41 million project will fill gaps in Arctic monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions from melting permafrost, currently a source uncertainty in climate models. The project is funded by private donors, including billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

With Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Alaska Institute of Justice, the project will also develop policies to help mitigate the global impact of permafrost emissions and, locally in Alaska, help communities indigenous people who struggle with ground thaw and the problems that arise from it.

“A lot of this is science,” said permafrost researcher Sue Natali, director of the Arctic program at Woodwell and one of the leaders of the new project, called Permafrost Pathways. “But really, it’s important for us to make sure our science is actually useful and usable where it’s needed.”

Permafrost, the frozen ground that underlies much of the Arctic and can be hundreds of feet deep, contains the remains of plants and animals accumulated over centuries. As rapid warming in the region caused more of the uppermost frozen layer to thaw, organic matter decomposed and emitted carbon dioxide and methane.

Permafrost is thought to contain about twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere. But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted last year in its Sixth Assessment Report, the size and timing of emissions from thawing permafrost are uncertain.

This uncertainty has been a major obstacle to integrating permafrost emissions into global climate policy,” Dr Natali said.

John Holdren, White House science adviser in the Obama administration and director of the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center, said better measurements, used to develop improved models, “could help us not only paint a better picture full picture of what is happening now, but would give us a better ability to predict what is likely to happen in the future.

Permafrost thaw does not only have global effects. Locally throughout the Arctic, it has rendered roads, bridges, houses and other structures built in the frozen ground unstable and unusable. Melting permafrost has also led to greater erosion, leading to land collapse and flooding.

The project will address these issues in coordination with select Alaska Native communities, said Robin Bronen, a human rights attorney and executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Institute for Justice. A few coastal communities in the state have been trying to relocate for years.

The project will work to develop a governance framework for resettlement, she said, “to create a process where communities have the environmental data they need, based on their indigenous knowledge and science, to make those decisions about whether or not they can stay where they are.”

Dr Natali said permafrost thaw is already happening and people are being affected by it. “People are moving or having to raise their houses to deal with this,” she said. “And there’s no support for that.”

The project is funded by the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding group that is an offshoot of TED, the Idea Sharing Organization.

“That’s a lot of money,” Dr. Holdren said, but maybe not as much as some think, because the $41 million is spread over six years. “And we’re going to be able to, I think, do a lot of good out of it.”

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