Permafrost – generally defined as ground that remains continuously frozen at least two consecutive years – can be found in Earth’s coldest areas: the Arctic, Antarctic, and high mountains. Permafrost is found virtually everywhere in the Arctic, and in fact most human activity in the Arctic takes place along permafrost coasts.
By Leena-Kaisa Viitanen, EU Project Manager, Alfred Wegener Institute and Tiina Kurvits, Senior Specialist, Ecosystem Management, GRID-Arendal and Levi Westerveld, Cartographer
In 2017, close to five million inhabitants lived in over one thousand settlements built on permafrost. Climate change and permafrost thaw are now exposing these settlements to rapid change, and by 2050, more than half of the inhabitants will live in settlements that are completely permafrost-free.
The EU Horizon 2020 funded Nunataryuk research project has for the past six years studied what happens to the thawing coastal and subsea permafrost. It has examined what risks the permafrost thaw poses to coastal infrastructure, Indigenous and local communities, and people’s health, and what the long-term impacts of permafrost thaw are on global climate and the economy.
The results show that impacts of permafrost thaw are manifold and experienced in very different ways depending where in the Arctic people live. While people in all areas of the circumpolar Arctic perceive permafrost thaw as a challenge, it varies greatly how problematic they perceive the thawing ground to be for their own settlement or to their own lives. It also varies significantly what aspects of their lives they consider permafrost to impact, as life takes very different forms depending on the geographical realities of their location.
In order to give a glimpse into the world of permafrost and the lives of people living on it, the Nunataryuk project has been working on an Arctic Permafrost Atlas that will compile together all the results of the project as well as other material from permafrost experts around the world. In addition to the latest scientific information, the publication will give voice to the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic in the form of portraits that will allow understanding of the changing Arctic permafrost also from the perspective of local communities and peoples. This print and digital Atlas will be a highly visual product. Covering over 150 pages, it will include a set of unique new maps on different aspects of permafrost and the impacts of permafrost thaw.
A map is just a map, you might think, usually showing places and things that have occurred in the past. But a map can be so much more than just a way to project locations and data, as we try to show with this Atlas. A map can change our perception of events – show realities and chains of changes that we did not understand that existed, and, in the best case scenario, even spur us into action before we reach the hypothetical future.
The Arctic Permafrost Atlas will be published online in spring 2023 and be publicly accessible at the Nunataryuk project website at Nunataryuk.org. The online publication will be accompanied with downloadable posters, individual pages, and graphics of the Atlas, so that the content can be re-used and repurposed in presentations, teaching, and any other relevant science communication activities.