NEW STUDY | Borehole network confirms, permafrost is thawing worldwide

Borehole network confirms, permafrost is thawing worldwide

Read the Study: Permafrost thermal state in the northern hemisphere

Published on August 13th, 2010


University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of geophysics Vladimir Romanovsky measures permafrost temperature in a borehole in Interior Alaska. (Courtesy Photo, Alexander Kholodov )

An expanded network of boreholes across the northern hemisphere has confirmed that permafrost throughout polar and sub-polar regions is thawing, say scientists who studied the topic during International Polar Year.

“You look at a whole hemisphere and see the patterns everywhere,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor with the snow, ice and permafrost group at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and lead author of a paper documenting the research.

Romanovsky and his colleagues launched a campaign to improve the global network of boreholes for International Polar Year, a science program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic that ran from 2007 to 2009. Boreholes are holes drilled anywhere from 6 feet to over 200 feet into the ground and equipped with sensors to allow scientists to measure soil conditions. The researchers established nearly 300 boreholes, nearly doubling the existing network.

“The heart of monitoring is the measuring of the temperatures in boreholes,” Romanovsky said.

Using information collected from 575 boreholes located throughout North America, Russia and the Nordic region, researchers found that permafrost temperatures during the International Polar Year were as much as 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Also, they found that the rate permafrost changes decreases the closer it gets to 0 degrees Celsius – basically, * cold permafrost thaws more quickly than warmer permafrost.

Romanovsky, Sharon L. Smith and Hanne H. Christianson published their findings in the April/June 2010 edition of the science publication Permafrost and Periglacial Processes.

The speed that permafrost thaws is important for Alaska and the world. Not only does thawing permafrost affect regional ecosystems, change landscapes and wreak havoc on infrastructure; it’s also an important player in the overall picture of climate change. Permafrost contains a vast amount of carbon, which scientists believe could seep into the atmosphere as methane as it thaws, and send already-rising temperatures even higher.

What Romanovksy and other scientists don’t know yet is how fast the permafrost will thaw. If there is a significant delay as permafrost approaches 0 Celsius, for example, it could be good “because it will give us more time to react,” Romanovsky said. However, that lag time could also mean that the warming will accelerate after the temperatures hit 0 degrees.

Having a comprehensive set of borehole data will help scientists understand and possibly predict these changes. The problem now is getting the resources to maintain the borehole network that is supplying the data, Romanovsky said.

“During IPY (International Polar Year) the conditions were favorable in terms of funding from different countries. Now it’s over, the funding level goes back to what it was and how to sustain (the borehole network) is already a big concern,” Romanovsky said.

Most boreholes need to be checked by someone trained to record their data. That gets expensive when boreholes are located in remote areas. There is technology that can transmit borehole data long-distance, making site visits unnecessary, but purchasing and installing it is also expensive.

Romanovsky would like to see more partnerships between scientists and communities affected by permafrost change when it comes to borehole research. He thinks a more sustainable strategy would be to concentrate boreholes around communities.

Scientists could help communities by planning their boreholes with local concerns in mind – if a town is concerned about the water quality of a lake, a borehole might be placed in that vicinity, for example. Communities in turn could assist researchers by helping scientists collect data. Romanovsky noted that already in many rural schools students study boreholes in their area and send the data they collect to scientists.

“I think it’s what all these things are about – it’s helping people to live. That could be our contribution to the state and the community,” Romanovsky said.

*Note by admin.:

The expression latent heat refers to the amount of energy released or absorbed by a chemical substance during a change of state that occurs without changing its temperature, meaning a phase transition such as the melting of ice or the boiling of water. Latent heat can be talked about for a general audience by referencing ice out dynamics on freshwater lakes—something we can assume many Alaskans have experience with.  Once the ice begins to GAIN THE latent heat NECESSARY FOR CHANGING TO A LIQUID (starts turning rotten—i.e. it isn’t safe to take your snowmobile on it) which is a period of time, then suddenly, often in a single day when the last of the ice’s latent heat is GAINED THROUGH the spring thaw, the ice is gone.  The slowing of the warming as the permafrost nears the freezing point is like the time when you stop riding on the lakes (even though there is still ice). [Thanks to Greg Robie for pointing this out.]

Victoria Barber can be reached at, or by phone at (800) 770-9830 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (800) 770-9830


~ by Cory Morningstar on August 30, 2010.

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