An important aspect of climate change in the Arctic is melting of the permafrost. In Svalbard, monitoring of permafrost is ongoing in several boreholes, including at Janssonhaugen, 20km from Longyearbyen. Heating and thawing of permafrost may result in greater instability in hillsides, increasing the probability of landslides and avalanches. Thawing permafrost can damage buildings and infrastructure and cultural heritage sites in coastal areas are exposed to increased erosion.
What is being monitored?
Cite these dataNorwegian Meteorological Institute (2021). Thickness of active layer in permafrost, Janssonhaugen. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL: http://www.mosj.no/en/climate/land/permafrost.html
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Thermistors attached to a data logger record temperatures in the borehole. The logger is programmed to observe the temperature four times a day. The data are filtered (gliding average over 366 days) to remove small (±0.02°C) temperature variations caused by seasonal systematic noise in the automatic data collection.
The absolute precision is ±0.05°C and the relative precision is ±0.02°C.
The measurement programme was set up in accordance with guidelines determined by the leading experts in Europe on permafrost monitoring and exceeds the international requirements for precision.
Status and trend
Permafrost monitoring began in 1998. Analyses show that the temperature in the upper part of the permafrost is rising on average 0.8°C per decade and that this rise has been accelerating during the past decade.
Rising temperatures in the permafrost have been recorded right down to a depth of 80 metres during the time the monitoring has been taking place. The active layer has become 30-35 cm thicker since 1998.
At international level, considerable research is under way linked to studies of permafrost which contains large quantities of organic carbon and which could be broken down and release the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) when ground temperatures rise and the permafrost thaws. Increases in the quantities of CO2 and CH4 are the principal contributors to global warming. Further warming and thawing of the permafrost could contribute to an even greater increase in these two greenhouse gases.
The warming of the permafrost at Janssonhaugen is first and foremost a response to the rise in the air temperature in recent decades.
Studies so far show that any changes in the snow cover have had no major effect on the permafrost at Janssonhaugen. This is because the locality is extremely exposed to wind, and the ground around the borehole is blown free of snow for large parts of the winter.
All buildings in the Svalbard settlements are built on piles driven into the permafrost, and roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure are also constructed on permafrost. When warming and thawing of the permafrost occurs, the infrastructure may be affected in the longer term. In addition, the permafrost is essential for stabilizing steep mountainsides, which may become more unstable when warming takes place. This will have consequences for travelling, and also potentially for animal life if, for example, areas with arctic fox dens become unstable and collapse.
Many cultural heritage remains in Svalbard are situated in the shore zone, where they may be vulnerable to increasing erosion in the future and sediment damage as a result of thawing of the permafrost.
On a circumpolar level, the most important consequence of the warming and thawing of the permafrost is, nevertheless, that large volumes of greenhouse gases, like CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane), may be released if ever deeper layers of the permafrost thaw. These gases have been kept out of the atmosphere because the organic carbon has been frozen in the ground. The release of such greenhouse gases may lead to a further rise in the temperature and thawing of the permafrost. This is one of the many feedback mechanisms in the Arctic, and attempts are continually being made to improve the estimates of the emissions from thawing permafrost.
About the monitoring
In cold permafrost, like in Svalbard, there is usually insignificant or no circulation of groundwater to disturb the progress of the temperature in the ground. By observing changes in the temperature at a depth of 30–40 metres over some years, it is possible to calculate the changes in temperature that have taken place near the ground surface over 10–20 years.
It transpires that the active layer, which is the uppermost part of the permafrost that thaws each summer, is becoming thicker over time. This is directly connected with warmer summers and brings with it problems like increased risk of landslides, more erosion on the coast and changes in the landscape. In recent years, international climate researchers have therefore become increasingly interested in the monitoring of permafrost.
Places and areas
Relations to other monitoring
- Monitoring programme
- International environmental agreements
- Voluntary international cooperation
- Related monitoring