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Climate change is melting more than just the polar ice caps

Apr 21, 2015

A pond created from the melting permafrost.
Credit NPS Climate Change Response on Flickr / Flickr

When we talk about climate change and what it's doing to our world, we often talk about melting ice at the polar cap and rising sea levels.

But there is something else happening as well: The permafrost is melting. And as it does, it is releasing even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Henry Pollack shares the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an investigator and contributing author with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and he is an emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan.

Permafrost covers a huge area, extending through much of northern Canada, Europe, and Asia, according to Pollack.

With climate change, the permafrost has begun to melt deeper into the surface than the expected meter that becomes mushy every summer.

"The warming is gradually penetrating into the permafrost and thawing it, and it's having a lot of interesting consequences," Pollack says.

And these consequences include bubbles seeping out of the ponds made out of the thawed ice – bubbles that are made out of methane and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gases.

This is "augmenting the very climate change that has led to their release," Pollack says.

According to Pollack, the methane comes from the soils and vegetation trapped in the permafrost. As the permafrost melts, the vegetation decays and releases methane, which in part oxidizes to carbon dioxide.

While melting is a slow process, Pollack believes it is every bit as important as the ice melting in places like Greenland and the Arctic.

"Some of the warnings of an imminent catastrophe are probably a little bit of hype, but nevertheless there is no reversal in sight,” Pollack says.