For two weeks in July, biology senior Laura Jardine studied thawing permafrost in Alaska as a part of the Polaris Project.
The Polaris Project consisted of 13 undergraduate and graduate students conducting research for individual projects, all focused on investigating the effects of the melting Arctic permafrost and climate change.
Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil hundreds to thousands of feet underground, mostly found in polar regions. However, the permafrost in Alaska is no longer permanent, according to the research Jardine and her peers collected.
Jardine said the emissions of the gases contained in the thawing permafrost would have huge global implications, because the more the permafrost melts, the more greenhouse gases will be released.
“The permafrost in Alaska contains a ton of carbon that has built up over thousands of years, and the Arctic is warming a lot faster than the rest of the world,” Jardine said. “That permafrost is at risk of thawing, which is going to release a ton of carbon dioxide and, even worse, methane into the atmosphere.”
Jardine said the release of carbon dioxide and methane from the thawing permafrost will only exacerbate global warming, making the Arctic warm up even faster than before.
The effects of the disappearing permafrost are already being seen in Alaska’s infrastructure.
Before they started their research, Jardine and the other students flew out to an Alaskan town called Bethel, with a small population of 6,000.
“When you drive down the roads in Bethel, it’s sort of like being on a rollercoaster because the ground has changed so much from the thawing permafrost. Water is released, so the ground collapses,” Jardine said.
Mark Davies, professor of ecological ethics at OCU, said if climate change persists in the same way it has been predicted, we will continue to see rises in sea level over the next century.
“We’re looking at close to a one degree Celsius increase over pre-industrial average temperatures, so we’re already seeing impacts with that in terms of decline in overall ice on the planet, and we’re seeing 95 percent of the glaciers receding,” Davies said.
A study done by researchers at Princeton University found that methane is almost 30 times as potent of a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. In regards to thawing permafrost releasing methane, Davies said it is the nightmare scenario for scientists.
“If the permafrost melts quickly and all that methane gets into the atmosphere, the chances of us being able to do anything in terms of a change in human behavior to try and mitigate climate change are going to decline pretty rapidly,” Davies said.
When it comes to studying climate change, Jardine said she is motivated to continue her research.
“It was really sad, in many ways, but it was pretty energizing too,” she said. “Overall it was a really amazing experience. I’ve never been around so many young scientists.”
Jardine is currently applying for grants to graduate school to continue the work she did over the summer, in hopes she can find ways to include herself in researching climate change.