Alaska News

Thawing permafrost threatens Alaska's ecosystem, UAF researcher says

FAIRBANKS -- Climate change stands to trigger a regime change in Alaska with far-reaching consequences as frozen ground thaws beneath us, a prominent University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist told the Tanana Chiefs Conference on Tuesday.

"Permafrost is the most important part of the ecosystem for engineering in Alaska," said hydrologist Larry Hinzman. "When you thaw the permafrost everything falls apart."

Hinzman, the director of the International Arctic Research Center, said Alaska is well on its way to switching from a frozen to a thawed state -- not a seasonal swing, but something more permanent.

The permafrost in much of Interior Alaska is already just a degree or two below the freezing point, he said, with warming expected to continue in the decades ahead.

"A degree or two warming of climate makes a big difference in our world," he said, adding that computer modeling shows more warming in the future.

"This amount of warming can take Alaska from being frozen to being thawed," he said, with glaciers turned into water and permafrost into thawed ground.

All across Alaska, the permafrost is thawing and the land surface is subsiding. He said conditions are similar in northern Canada and Siberia. The permafrost helps control the hydrology, which in turn helps control the vegetation, which in turn helps control the animals that live on it.


Hinzman spoke on climate change and Arctic issues during the annual TCC convention at the Westmark Hotel, attended by hundreds of residents from villages across the Interior.

He said the climate statistics show Alaska is warming more than the rest of the country and northern Alaska is warming more than southern Alaska. When the permafrost thaws, lakes shrink and the ground dries out, changing living conditions on the surface.

About 5 percent of Alaska is likely to get wetter, not drier, with climate change, he said, particularly in low-lying areas where the water table is near the surface.

Most communities in the state have seen a temperature increase of several degrees over the past 60 years in the winter. Kodiak has cooled a bit in the autumn, while St. Paul has cooled a bit in the spring and winter, but those are the exceptions.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.