Donors pledge $41 million to monitor Arctic ice melt

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

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

Through Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs 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 indigenous communities struggling with thawing and the problems that arise from it.

“A good part of that is the science,” said Sue Natale, 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 when needed.”

Permafrost, the frozen ground that lies under 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 causes more of the upper frozen layer to melt, the organic matter decomposes and emits carbon dioxide and methane.

Permafrost is believed to contain twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. But as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted last year as part of its Sixth Assessment Report, the magnitude and timing of emissions from thawing permafrost is uncertain.

This uncertainty has been a major impediment to incorporating permafrost emissions into global climate policy,” said Dr. Natalie.

Better measurements, used to develop improved models, “could help us not only put together a more complete picture of what’s happening now, but it would give us a better ability to predict What is likely to happen in the future.”

Permafrost thaw doesn’t just have global effects. Locally across the Arctic it caused instability of roads, bridges, homes and other structures built in frozen, unusable land. The thawing of permafrost also increased erosion, resulting in land collapse and flooding.

Robin Pronin, a human rights attorney and executive director of the Alaska Institute of Justice, based in Anchorage, said the project will address these issues in coordination with some of Alaska’s indigenous communities. Some coastal communities in the state have been trying to relocate for years.

She said the project would develop a governance framework for resettlement, “to create a process in which communities have the environmental data they need, based on their indigenous knowledge and science, to make these decisions about whether or not they can stay where they are.”

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

The project is funded by the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding group affiliated with TED, the idea-sharing organization.

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

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