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 the gaps in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost in the Arctic, currently a source of uncertainty in modeling. climatic. The project is funded by private donors, including billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

With Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Alaska Justice Institute, the project will also develop policies to help mitigate the global impact of permafrost emissions and, locally in Alaska, help communities natives that struggle with the melting and problems that derive 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 for us to make sure our science is really 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 upper frozen layer to thaw, organic matter has been breaking down 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 incorporating permafrost emissions into global climate policy,” said Dr. Natali.

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

The thawing of permafrost does not only have global effects. Locally, throughout the Arctic, it has caused roads, bridges, houses and other structures built on frozen ground to become unstable and unusable. Melting permafrost has also resulted in increased 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 attorney and executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Institute for Justice. Some coastal communities in the state have been trying to relocate for years.

The project will work to develop a governance framework for relocation, he 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 they can or not stay where they are.”

Dr. Natali said that permafrost thaw is already underway and people are affected by it. “People are moving their houses or having to raise their houses to deal with this,” he said. “And there is no support for that.”

The project is being funded through the Audacious Project, a crowdfunding group that is an offshoot of TED, the think tank.

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

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