Permafrost, which covers 15 million km2 of the land surface, is one of the components of the Earth system that is most sensitive to warming1,2. Loss of permafrost would radically change high-latitude hydrology and biogeochemical cycling, and could therefore provide very significant feedbacks on climate change3,4,5,6,7,8. The latest climate models all predict warming of high-latitude soils and thus thawing of permafrost under future climate change, but with widely varying magnitudes of permafrost thaw9,10. Here we show that in each of the models, their present-day spatial distribution of permafrost and air temperature can be used to infer the sensitivity of permafrost to future global warming. Using the same approach for the observed permafrost distribution and air temperature, we estimate a sensitivity of permafrost area loss to global mean warming at stabilization of million km2 °C−1 (1σ confidence), which is around 20% higher than previous studies9. Our method facilitates an assessment for COP21 climate change targets11: if the climate is stabilized at 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, we estimate that the permafrost area would eventually be reduced by over 40%. Stabilizing at 1.5 °C rather than 2 °C would save approximately 2 million km2 of permafrost.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $17.75 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Romanovsky, V. et al. in Arctic Report Card 2013 131–136 (NOAA Arctic Program, 2013); ftp://ftp.oar.noaa.gov/arctic/documents/ArcticReportCard_full_report2013.pdf
Romanovsky, V., Burgess, M., Smith, S., Yoshikawa, K. & Brown, J. Permafrost temperature records: indicators of climate change. Eos 83, 589–594 (2002).
Grosse, G., Goetz, S., McGuire, A. D., Romanovsky, V. E. & Schuur, E. A. G. Changing permafrost in a warming world and feedbacks to the Earth system. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 040201 (2016).
Schaefer, K., Lantuit, H., Romanovsky, V. E., Schuur, E. A. G. & Witt, R. The impact of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 085003 (2014).
Schneider von Deimling, T. et al. Estimating the near-surface permafrost-carbon feedback on global warming. Biogeosciences 9, 649–665 (2012).
Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature 520, 171–179 (2015).
MacDougall, A. H., Avis, C. A. & Weaver, A. J. Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback. Nat. Geosci. 5, 719–721 (2012).
Burke, E. J., Hartley, I. P. & Jones, C. D. Uncertainties in the global temperature change caused by carbon release from permafrost thawing. Cryosphere 6, 1063–1076 (2012).
Koven, C. D., Riley, W. J. & Stern, A. Analysis of permafrost thermal dynamics and response to climate change in the CMIP5 Earth System Models. J. Clim. 26, 1877–1900 (2013).
Slater, A. G. & Lawrence, D. M. Diagnosing present and future permafrost from climate models. J. Clim. 26, 5608–5623 (2013).
Adoption of the Paris Agreement FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (UNFCCC, 2015); http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf
Zhang, T., Barry, R. G., Knowles, K., Heginbottom, J. A. & Brown, J. Statistics and characteristics of permafrost and ground-ice distribution in the Northern Hemisphere. Pol. Geogr. 23, 132–154 (1999).
Schaefer, K., Lantuit, H., Romanovsky, V. & Schuur, E. A. G. Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost (United Nations Environment Programme, 2012); http://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/8533
Hugelius, G. et al. Estimated stocks of circumpolar permafrost carbon with quantified uncertainty ranges and identified data gaps. Biogeosciences 11, 6573–6593 (2014).
Anisimov, O. A. & Nelson, F. E. Permafrost zonation and climate change in the Northern Hemisphere: results from transient general circulation models. Climatic Change 35, 241–258 (1997).
Chadburn, S. E. et al. Impact of model developments on present and future simulations of permafrost in a global land-surface model. Cryosphere 9, 1505–1521 (2015).
Westermann, S., Østby, T. I., Gisnås, K., Schuler, T. V. & Etzelmüller, B. A ground temperature map of the North Atlantic permafrost region based on remote sensing and reanalysis data. Cryosphere 9, 1303–1319 (2015).
Jorgenson, M. et al. Resilience and vulnerability of permafrost to climate change. Can. J. For. Res. 40, 1219–1236 (2010).
Gruber, S. Derivation and analysis of a high-resolution estimate of global permafrost zonation. Cryosphere 6, 221–233 (2012).
Brown, J., Ferrians, O. J. Jr, Heginbottom, J. & Melnikov, E. Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground Ice Conditions (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 1998); http://nsidc.org/data/docs/fgdc/ggd318_map_circumarctic
Weedon, G. P. et al. The Watch Forcing Data 1958–2001: A Meteorological Forcing Dataset for Land Surface- and Hydrological-Models WATCH Technical Report 22 (WATCH, 2010); http://www.eu-watch.org/publications
Weedon, G. P. et al. The WFDEI meteorological forcing data set: WATCH forcing data methodology applied to ERA-interim reanalysis data. Wat. Resour. Res. 50, 7505–7514 (2014).
Goodrich, L. The influence of snow cover on the ground thermal regime. Can. Geotech. J. 19, 421–432 (1982).
Nelson, F. E. Permafrost distribution in central Canada: applications of a climate-based predictive model. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 76, 550–569 (1986).
Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. A Summary of the CMIP5 Experiment Design PCMDI Tech. Rep. (WCRP, 2009); http://cmip-pcmdi.llnl.gov/cmip5/docs/Taylor_CMIP5_design.pdf
IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
Xie, Y., Liu, Y. & Huang, J. Overestimated Arctic warming and underestimated Eurasia mid-latitude warming in CMIP5 simulations. Int. J. Climatol. 36, 4475–4487 (2016).
Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University, International Food Policy Research Institute, The World Bank, & Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, Version 1 (grumpv1): Population Density Grid (NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, 2011); http://dx.doi.org/10.7927/H4R20Z93
Balk, D. et al. Determining global population distribution: methods, applications and data. Adv. Parasitol. 62, 119–156 (2006).
Shindell, D. & Faluvegi, G. Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century. Nat. Geosci. 2, 294–300 (2009).
Miller, G. H. et al. Arctic amplification: can the past constrain the future? Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1779–1790 (2010); Special theme: Arctic palaeoclimate synthesis (1674–1790).
The authors acknowledge funding and support from the Permafrost in the Arctic and Global Effects in the 21st century (PAGE21) Framework 7 project GA282700. S.E.C., G.H. and S.W. were funded under the Joint Partnership Initiative (JPI) project COnstraining Uncertainties in the Permafrost-climate feedback (COUP) (S.E.C.: National Environment Research Council grant NE/M01990X/1; G.H.: Swedish Research Council grant no. E0689701; S.W.: Research Council of Norway project no. 244903/E10 with additional funding for S.W. through SatPerm and Permanor (Research Council of Norway project no. 239918 and 255331/E10)). E.J.B. was supported by the Joint UK DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101). P.M.C. and P.F. acknowledge funding from CRESCENDO (EU project 641816). S.E.C. is grateful to the University of Exeter for access to facilities. Thanks to D. Pearson for helpful discussions, and A. Lebéhot for comments on the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Chadburn, S., Burke, E., Cox, P. et al. An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming. Nature Clim Change 7, 340–344 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3262
Spatiotemporal characteristics of hydrothermal processes of the active layer on the central and northern Qinghai–Tibet plateau
Science of The Total Environment (2020)
Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science (2020)
Global and Planetary Change (2020)
Effect of length ratios on the cooling performance of an inclined two-phase closed thermosyphon under negative temperature conditions
Solar Energy (2020)
Improving dialogue among researchers, local and indigenous peoples and decision-makers to address issues of climate change in the North