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Thawing Permafrost and the Resultant Geopolitics in the Arctic

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

There have been a number of studies around thawing permafrost and the release of extra carbon, further accelerating the rate of global warming. The research also gained importance due to the reports of fires in the tundra region[i], an anthrax break-out in the Siberian region[ii], the release of ancient carbon[iii], CH4 bubbling out of lakes[iv] and a gigantic mega slump in Batagaika region of Russia.[v] The latest estimate is that some 18.8 million square km of northern soils hold about 1,700 billion tonnes of organic carbon - the remains of plants and animals that have been accumulating in the soil over thousands of years. Regions like Svalbard - already a point of contestation between Russia and Norway, Novaya Zemlya - the site of the largest atomic test ever conducted, and Greenland are already showing signs of extensive melting of permafrost due to ever-increasing heatwaves.

Permafrost is a layer of frozen ground which never thaws, so the carcasses of dead plants or animals never decompose. Increasing temperatures due to climate change have resulted in the melting of the permafrost. This means the dead bodies come in contact with natural agents such as air and bacteria, which initiates the decomposition process resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases.

The thawing of the permafrost leads to the destabilization of the structures located above it and also causes disasters like landslides, avalanches, etc.[vi] Thus, due to climate change, bacteria and viruses have a strong chance of reinfecting humanity. Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, professors of microbiology found Pithovirus sibericum, a virion that had survived 30,000 years frozen in the ice core.[vii] Though such viruses aren’t a threat to humanity, human pathogens could well be discovered once more heat waves pass through the region and result in thawing. The professors duo term the phenomenon of thawing permafrost as “pandora’s box”.[viii] It has been predicted that most of the released carbon will be in the form of CO2, with only about 2.7% in the form of CH4 (methane), however, CH4 has a higher global warming potential.[ix]

The ice has been shrinking throughout the arctic much faster than in any other place and with that there is thawing permafrost. This may be partially attributed to why Russia is strategically eyeing towards an economic boom in the Arctic. Barentsburg, an island in Svalbard has a coal mine owned by Russia with Russian flags on it. While nations see the melting of ice as a climate disaster, arctic nations see it as an opportunity to tap into a whole new ocean. The U.S. geological survey shows that regions around North Pole are areas with 50% or greater chance of undiscovered oil and gas reserves and rare earth elements. Now, knowing the edge of continental shelf for any country can add millions of square kilometres to any country and results in access to the seabed resources.

Therefore, Russia is refortifying and renovating a lot of their strategic outposts in the Arctic. They’re training, holding military exercises in the Arctic which include reindeer, huskies, and soldiers in uniforms. Russia also has a consulate at Barentsburg, the northernmost diplomatic mission for any country in the world. Russia is here for the long game with newly refurbished buildings, new Arctic theme bars, museums that tell the presence of Russia in the Arctic. However, exerting soft power in the region has led to the movement of a lot of permafrost - millions of tonnes. Now heaps of permafrost lies excavated, rotting in the sun and rain leads to release of infectious microbes in the air.

There has been little research in this field and nations are just beginning to realize the magnitude of the problem. As a result, the scientific community needs to collect more data and develop more sophisticated models to either support or rebut existing data. There have been efforts made by the USA in the form of Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic to quantify physical, chemical and biological behaviour of terrestrial ecosystems in Alaska.

Further, NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology Program is conducting a major field program, the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), in Alaska and Western Canada to seek better understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems and society to this changing environment. The European Space agency’s Glob Permafrost Initiative and International Permafrost Association are some of the other initiatives to fill the research gaps in this field.

Thawing has entirely changed the culture of the communities living nearby, due to the land becoming unstable or even submerged - making it difficult for hunting. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reduce atmospheric emissions in order to save us from a Neanderthal-like extinction. It is a ticking time-bomb situation.

Harsh Bajpai (Environment)


[i] Mack, M.C. et al. Nature 475, 489-492 (2011).

[ii] Gainer R. Yamal and anthrax. Can Vet J. 2016;57(9):985–987.

[iii] Schuur, E.A.G. et al. Nature 459, 556-559 (2009).

[iv] Walter, K.M., Zimov, S.A., Chanton, J.P., Verbyla, D. & Chapin, F., S.III Nature 443, 71-75 (2006).

[v] Tarnocai, C. et al. Global Biogeochem Cycles 23, GB2023 (2009)

[vi] Robinson, M., “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change”, The Atlantic, Nov. 6, 2017

[vii] Legendre, M. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA

[viii] Yong, E. Giant viruses open Pandora's box. Nature (2013)

[ix] Bellamy, P.H., Loveland, P.J., Bradley, R.I., Lark, R.M. & Kirk, G.J. Nature 437, 245-248 (2005).

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