Permafrost in the High Arctic.

Photo Courtesy of Brocken Inaglory

Melting Permafrost Leads to Global Temperature Increases and Local Danger

By Rachel Gentile           November 25, 2017

As average global temperatures rise, many climate warming mechanisms are being exacerbated, leading to continually warming temperatures. Permafrost, the frozen layer of soil and ice found beneath the ground in much of northern Canada, Alaska, and Russia, is melting. The disappearance of permafrost is causing increased warming and infrastructure damage, and it poses a threat to public health and ecosystems.

Methane release is accelerating at higher latitudes where permafrost can be found. Normally, permafrost remains frozen all year, but last summer portions of Siberia reached upwards of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, an unprecedented high for a previously frigid tundra, thawing the permafrost. As the ice melts, it exposes previously trapped organic matter. Microbes then convert this newly melted organic material into carbon dioxide and methane which will enter the atmosphere. Methane is much less prominent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it has massive heat-trapping capabilities with the ability to insulate 28 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Release of these greenhouse gases creates a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop is a series of events occurring after an action or change in an environment that increases the effect of the change. In Siberia and northern Canada, warming temperatures melt the permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases and consequently warming the atmosphere more, leading to more melting. Some estimates show that worldwide permafrost stores could contain twice as much carbon dioxide as is currently in the atmosphere. If permafrost continues to melt, these large stores of carbon dioxide and methane will be released into the atmosphere, which will increase temperatures and ultimately lead to more melting.

Permafrost melting and the release of carbon dioxide and methane are problems that affect the entire planet, but those living near the melting ice and soil experience a more immediate impact. On a local scale, the melting of permafrost has a negative effect on the infrastructure of northern regions. When ice melts the remaining water takes up less space which causes the ground to shift, and results in cracked foundations and uneven roads. These infrastructure problems are made even more dangerous in remote locations like the far north because they often go unnoticed. Many important roadways and airport runways have had to be reinforced with liquid-filled pipes that transfer heat out of the permafrost to help prevent melting and the related structural damage.

Another problem with melting permafrost is that it can release pathogens that have been dormant since as far back as the last ice age. For example, several outbreaks of anthrax have infected the reindeer population in western Siberia. These outbreaks are believed to be traced back to infected reindeer carcasses that were preserved in the permafrost and have been uncovered by thawing ice. The bacteria, preserved in the ice, has since been spread across the tundra through wind, animals, and people. In 2016, one hundred people were infected and one boy died. In order to stop the spread of the disease, the Russian government planned to euthanize up to 250,000 reindeer as part of the annual reindeer cull. Every year the government euthanizes a few thousand reindeer in order to keep the population at a sustainable size but never this many. Though a smaller population may lead to overall healthier reindeer because of less competition for food, smaller herds could be the end of a local culture.

The Nenets are a nomadic group that herd reindeer and rely on the animals to make their living. Entire families pack up their portable homes made from reindeer hides and move to new grazing grounds as the reindeer migrate. The Nenets rely on having a certain number of reindeer in their herd in order to pull sleds carrying their belongings across the tundra. The reindeer in Nenet herds would be included in the government’s mass euthanization. If the Russian government were to kill off a quarter of a million animals, many families may not be able to remain nomadic. Not only do the Nenet use reindeer for transportation but they also rely on the animals for food and pelts which can be used for clothing, constructing huts and sleds, or sold for money.

As temperatures rise more permafrost will melt and release both methane and deadly bacteria like anthrax. The Nenets will continue to face challenges presented by climate change, such as heat waves in the summer months and freezing over of winter pastures. Additionally, the expansion of Russian natural gas fields and pipelines are making pastures unusable and are interfering with the reindeer migration paths, making it harder for the herders to reach the few pastures still left.

The melting of permafrost has far reaching implications. In northern latitudes, there is an immediate effect on local culture and infrastructure. The Nenet Tribe may need to change its entire way of life if the reindeer population is affected by more ice-bound diseases and climate induced food-scarcity. In Alaska and Canada large amounts of money will be spent on fixing and adapting roads and runways to accommodate for melting permafrost. Globally, the methane and carbon dioxide released by melting permafrost has the potential to enhance warming caused by human activity. These examples demonstrate the importance of slowing global warming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.



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