Like loss of sea ice, the loss of permafrost can be a telltale sign of how Earth's natural processes are functioning, and a Texas A&M University researcher is studying how permafrost temperatures have been rapidly changing in recent years and could be a contributing factor to climate change.
Permafrost can be a barometer of Earth's health. Photo: ShutterstockOliver Frauenfeld, a climatologist in the College Of Geosciences at Texas A&M, has studied soil temperature records from throughout Eurasia, especially the former Soviet Union, and found that permafrost temperatures have been rising, and in some areas, at an alarming rate. He presented his findings at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
"The goal of the study is to try and find how frozen ground is changing and how quickly it is doing so," Frauenfeld explains. "Are these soil changes resulting in feedbacks that speed up climate change? It's a question we need to answer."
Permafrost is ground that has remained frozen for two years or more.
Much of the Arctic is composed of permafrost, as are vast sections of Canada and Alaska and areas covering millions of square miles of northern Europe and Asia. In the last Ice Age, areas of the Earth that contained permafrost were much larger than today, and studies have shown that it existed as far south as Missouri and as far west as Oregon.
Frauenfeld says he believes the rising soil temperatures are from warmer-than-usual summertime heat patterns, followed by deeper autumn snow cover. He measured data from 423 Russian field sites.
"What's happening is that the warmer soil takes longer to cool off during winter, and this heat then ends up making winters warmer across the Arctic," he says, adding that the soil temperature has risen as much as five degrees in some permafrost areas.
"This process is like a domino effect, where the initial climate change causes more and more warming in these areas. In many regions, the soil is warming faster than the air temperature."
He notes that the "loss of sea ice is still a greater concern because the ocean stores much more heat than the soil, and it seems to be happening ever faster. These two areas of study – loss of sea ice and rising soil temperatures – can give us a clearer picture of the health of Earth. The information we have learned from this study can be introduced into new climate models, and we certainly need to do more research into these causes."
About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world's leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents total annual expenditures of more than $776 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.
Media contact: or Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or Oliver Frauenfeld at (979) 862-8420