Photo by Frank Kelley (PolarTREC 2008)
Photo by Frank Kelley (PolarTREC 2008)

The arctic landscape is changing in response to climate warming. Essential characteristics of the arctic landscape are controlled by its unique climate and by the presence of permafrost. Relatively rapid degradation of near-surface, ice-rich permafrost caused by atmospheric forcing is adversely affecting human infrastructure, altering arctic ecosystem structure and function, changing the surface energy balance, and has the potential to dramatically impact arctic hydrological process and increase greenhouse gas emissions. However, processes leading to permafrost change are poorly understood.

Therefore, it is imperative to address fundamental gaps in scientific knowledge of permafrost characteristics and dynamics to support planning, management, and climate policy efforts. Specifically there is an urgent need to assess the vulnerability of permafrost to thaw and to understand the local and global feedbacks when this happens. Substantial amounts of organic matter are frozen in near-surface permafrost. An unknown portion of this material will become available for microbial processing in the future, which may result in enhanced release of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Greater release of these gases from sub-sea and terrestrial permafrost will likely create a positive feedback loop in which future climate warming causes further degradation of permafrost, which releases more greenhouse gases, leading to further warming and additional degradation of remaining permafrost. Such a feedback loop could result in accelerated warming throughout the globe, which will strongly impact ongoing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. This feedback loop, and the potential damage and costs it could generate, highlights the strong global connections between lower latitudes and the Arctic. In particular, there is a growing realization that there are strong interactions between degradation of near-surface permafrost and dynamics of the Earth climate system and that these interactions may have substantial influences on global environmental, economic, and social systems.

Critically important science and data gaps about the causes and consequences of loss of near-surface permafrost are identified in the following objectives.

Objectives (5-Year Timeframe)

Science Objectives:

1. Improve observation and prediction of the nature, timing, and location of permafrost thaw.

1.1. Identify indicators of change in the state of permafrost to serve as early warning signs for possible tipping points in the state of the arctic system.

1.2. Enhance existing efforts to create a comprehensive observing system to document changes in these critical indicators and to provide data for calibration and validation of models.

1.3. Determine which components of arctic landscapes are most sensitive to permafrost thaw and pose the greatest risks to human infrastructure and ecosystem services.

1.4. Develop models and probabilistic forecasting tools to quantify uncertainties in the atmospheric drivers, surface characteristics, and soil properties that control the timing and extent of permafrost thaw in the next few decades and centuries.

1.5. Characterize the extent and rates of degradation of sub-sea permafrost.

2. Improve prediction of how degradation of near-surface permafrost will influence the dynamics of the arctic landscape.

2.1. Promote field and modeling efforts to predict how atmospheric forcings will degrade near-surface permafrost and alter the surface energy balance and hydrology in the Arctic, at local to regional scales.

2.2. Refine estimates of the total mass, quality, and vulnerability of soil carbon by depth and region.

2.3. Identify the key variables that are likely to control the mobility and availability of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus from thawed permafrost and how these and other important biogeochemical materials will be processed by microbes and vegetation.

2.4. Encourage laboratory, field, and modeling efforts to estimate the amounts of critical greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, and N2O) released to the atmosphere in the future as permafrost thaws.

3. Improve prediction of how permafrost degradation will influence fish, wildlife, and human communities.

3.1. Determine how degradation of near-surface permafrost will affect soil stability, vegetation communities, and surface and subsurface hydrology.

3.2. Identify how these factors will influence habitat suitability and distribution and the sustainability of fish and wildlife populations.

3.3. Determine how ecosystem services that are critical to human existence in the Arctic will change. This goal ties directly to the "Society and Policy" goal.

3.4. Estimate the costs of mitigation or replacement of infrastructure that will be at risk from thawing permafrost.

Coordination Objectives:

4. Identify gaps in Arctic Observing Network datasets and the resources needed to fill those gaps.

4.1. Position SEARCH to coordinate observing efforts focused on permafrost dynamics, identify gaps, advocate for cross-disciplinary observations, and encourage individual science projects to produce data that will complement the data collected by various data collection and observing networks.

4.2. Help coordinate the exchange of data necessary for modeling studies; review how model predictions identify new needs for data from observing or data collection networks.

5. Identify partners who can facilitate progress on the science objectives for the SEARCH permafrost goal.

5.1. Prioritize knowledge required to support our understanding of how permafrost degradation will affect the arctic landscape.

5.2. Work with federal agencies that have made substantial investments in research on permafrost that directly or indirectly supports SEARCH objectives.

For example:

i. NASA's Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) and Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) have objectives that parallel many of SEARCH's objectives. In addition, NASA maintains numerous sensors on different platforms that can add substantial value to projects supported by partnering programs.

ii. DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program and Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) has programmatic objectives that directly address several SEARCH science objectives.

iii. The Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) initiative is currently supporting projects that will make existing information more readily available to the science and management community.

iv. NSF's Office of Polar Programs provides essential support for long-term observation of and basic research on permafrost.

v. USGS supports permafrost borehole and soil climate change programs.

vi. The NPS has invested substantial funding in Inventory and Monitoring programs within the Arctic Parks system, which cover a substantial portion of the Alaskan Arctic region.

5.3. Explore whether industry partners would be willing to share proprietary data that could help fill gaps about the spatial (and perhaps temporal) distribution of permafrost characteristics.

Stakeholder Objectives:

6. Improve delivery of information and knowledge about change in the arctic landscape to stakeholders.

6.1. Ensure a steady flow of information about the status and findings of permafrost-related science efforts.

6.2. Develop effective means to communicate findings and progress in ways that appeal and are useful to the public and to non-technical decision makers.

7. Create opportunities to receive feedback about permafrost degradation from stakeholders.

7.1. Identify opportunities and mechanisms to ingest experience and knowledge that could help achieve the Science Objectives.

Science Steering Committee Contacts: Breck Bowden (breck.bowden [at], George Kling (gwk [at], David McGuire (admcguire [at]

Version: December 2012