Effects of Hillslope Thermokarst in Northern Alaska (Melting Permafrost)

By February 10, 2009 March 1st, 2013 Permafrost

 This is a classic example of a scientist, or in this case, a team of scientists, understating the obvious.  It is a product of the industry of science, a product of the ultra conservative scientists themselves. What they have "discovered" are dramatic affects of melting permafrost in the Arctic. It appears that permafrost melt on slopes creates a unique set of reactions compared to permafrost melt in flat areas. These scientists have documented three relatively small areas in northern Alaska where about a thousand of these thermokarst melt events, up to nearly a thousand yards long each are occurring.

Permafrost that has built up on the slopes of mountain ranges for hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of years, thousands of feet deep, is now melting. When the ice melts, the soil structure loses its strength and the soil begins moving down the mountainside.  It happens first in shallow layers close to the surface, then in deeper and deeper layers as warming continues. It happens in slumps and sheets and slides and gulleys and is called "mass wasting". The scientists say that the rate of this thawing has doubled and then doubled again in about the last 20 years.

In geologic history, that we can tell, this has never happened. But the scientists who authored this paper do not say this. They also do not say that this is happening completely across the north of the entire planet, or that this is an irreversible and unstoppable process. They do not say that the melting of the permanent ice that is just a foot or two from the surface leads to changes in the environmental which, like the ice, has been unchanged for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. They do not say that the methane released from this partially decomposed vegetation that has been trapped in the ice for these 100s of thousands, or millions of years is likely responsible for the rapidly increasing methane concentrations in our atmosphere.

The scientist is responsible for discussing only a very small piece of the puzzle in their work.  They can not and do not make the connections because their data, their statistics, the ways that they can say something is just and valid, does not look at anything but the very narrow focus of their research.

I saw this happening in Alaska.  The southern slope of the Alaska Range, where the Alaska Highway runs, is riddled with these slumps. They range from 100 to 1,000 yards long, are much narrower than they are long, and they all seemed to have slid down the side of the mountain 10 to 100 feet.  This area traversed the length of the Alaska Range for as far as I traveled the Alaska Highway – about 80 miles. There were literally thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands. I could not be for sure that these were caused by a warming planet – I still can not; science is just that way. This is one of the great reasons why understanding climate change is so difficult.

The title of this article too, is another reason why climate change is so difficult to understand.  It’s not that the science is so difficult. It is the language that is used by the scientists to describe their discoveries.  In this case, not only is thermokarst an unknown quantity, but the title "Effects of Hillslope Thermokarst in Northern Alaska" gives absolutely no clue that this article discusses proof of one of the major affects of man caused warming on the planet, that is happening now in a frightening way, that is unstoppable and irreversible, that is creating significant feedback that causes even more warming which in turn causes more melt that is creating never before seen environmental changes, that are also responsible for feedbacks that will only add to the warming more.

So now it is probably obvious that the definition of thermokarst is: land-surface configuration that results from the melting of ground ice in a region underlain by permafrost.