Donors Pledge $41 Million to Monitor Thawing Arctic Permafrost

Climate scientists, policy experts and environmental justice advocates on Monday announced a major project to better understand the contribution of thawing permafrost to global warming and to help Arctic communities cope with its effects.

Led by the Massachusetts-based Woodwell Climate Research Center, the 6-year, $41 million project will fill in gaps in monitoring across the Arctic of greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost, currently a source of uncertainty in climate models. The project is financed by private donors, among them the billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

With the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and the Alaska Institute of Justice, the project will also develop policies to help mitigate the global impact of permafrost emissions and, locally in Alaska, assist Native communities that are struggling with thawing ground and problems that arise from it.

“A good part of this is science,” said Sue Natali, a permafrost researcher, director of the Arctic program at Woodwell and one of the leaders of the new project, called Permafrost Pathways. “But really, it’s important to us to be making sure that our science is actually useful and usable where it’s needed.”

Permafrost, the frozen ground that underlies much of the Arctic and can be hundreds of feet deep, contains the remains of plants and animals accumulated over centuries. As rapid warming in the region has caused more of the topmost frozen layer to thaw, organic matter has been decomposing and emitting carbon dioxide and methane.

Permafrost is thought to contain about twice as much carbon as is now in the atmosphere. But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted last year as part of its Sixth Assessment Report, the size and timing of emissions from thawing permafrost are uncertain.

That uncertainty has been a major barrier to the incorporation of permafrost emissions into global climate policy,” Dr. Natali said.

John Holdren, the White House science adviser in the Obama administration and a director of the Arctic Initiative at the Belfer Center, said that better measurements, used to develop improved models, “could help us not only put together a more complete picture of what is happening now, but would give us a better capacity to project what is likely to happen in the future.”

Permafrost thaw does not only have global effects. Locally throughout the Arctic it has caused roads, bridges, homes and other structures built in frozen ground to become unstable and unusable. Melting permafrost has also resulted in greater erosion, leading to land collapse and flooding.

The project will address those issues in coordination with some Alaska Native communities, said Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer and executive director of Alaska Institute for Justice, based in Anchorage. A few coastal communities in the state have been trying to relocate for years.

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The project will work to develop a governance framework for relocation, she said, “to create a process where communities have the environmental data they need, based on their Indigenous knowledge and the science, to make these decisions about whether or not they can stay where they are.”

Dr. Natali said permafrost thaw is already underway and people are being impacted by it, “People are moving their houses or having to raise their houses up to deal with this,” she said. “And there’s no support for it.”

The project is being funded through the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding group that is an offshoot of TED, the idea-sharing organization.

“It’s a lot of money,” Dr. Holdren said, although perhaps not as much as some think because the $41 million is spread over six years. “And we’re going to be able, I think, to do a lot of good with it.”

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