Letter | Published:

An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming

Nature Climate Change volume 7, pages 340344 (2017) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. in Arctic Report Card 2013 131–136 (NOAA Arctic Program, 2013); ftp://ftp.oar.noaa.gov/arctic/documents/ArcticReportCard_full_report2013.pdf

  2. 2.

    , , , & Permafrost temperature records: indicators of climate change. Eos 83, 589–594 (2002).

  3. 3.

    , , , & Changing permafrost in a warming world and feedbacks to the Earth system. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 040201 (2016).

  4. 4.

    , , , & The impact of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 085003 (2014).

  5. 5.

    et al. Estimating the near-surface permafrost-carbon feedback on global warming. Biogeosciences 9, 649–665 (2012).

  6. 6.

    et al. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature 520, 171–179 (2015).

  7. 7.

    , & Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback. Nat. Geosci. 5, 719–721 (2012).

  8. 8.

    , & Uncertainties in the global temperature change caused by carbon release from permafrost thawing. Cryosphere 6, 1063–1076 (2012).

  9. 9.

    , & Analysis of permafrost thermal dynamics and response to climate change in the CMIP5 Earth System Models. J. Clim. 26, 1877–1900 (2013).

  10. 10.

    & Diagnosing present and future permafrost from climate models. J. Clim. 26, 5608–5623 (2013).

  11. 11.

    Adoption of the Paris Agreement FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (UNFCCC, 2015);

  12. 12.

    , , , & Statistics and characteristics of permafrost and ground-ice distribution in the Northern Hemisphere. Pol. Geogr. 23, 132–154 (1999).

  13. 13.

    , , & Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost (United Nations Environment Programme, 2012);

  14. 14.

    et al. Estimated stocks of circumpolar permafrost carbon with quantified uncertainty ranges and identified data gaps. Biogeosciences 11, 6573–6593 (2014).

  15. 15.

    & Permafrost zonation and climate change in the Northern Hemisphere: results from transient general circulation models. Climatic Change 35, 241–258 (1997).

  16. 16.

    et al. Impact of model developments on present and future simulations of permafrost in a global land-surface model. Cryosphere 9, 1505–1521 (2015).

  17. 17.

    , , , & A ground temperature map of the North Atlantic permafrost region based on remote sensing and reanalysis data. Cryosphere 9, 1303–1319 (2015).

  18. 18.

    et al. Resilience and vulnerability of permafrost to climate change. Can. J. For. Res. 40, 1219–1236 (2010).

  19. 19.

    Derivation and analysis of a high-resolution estimate of global permafrost zonation. Cryosphere 6, 221–233 (2012).

  20. 20.

    , , & Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground Ice Conditions (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 1998);

  21. 21.

    et al. The Watch Forcing Data 1958–2001: A Meteorological Forcing Dataset for Land Surface- and Hydrological-Models WATCH Technical Report 22 (WATCH, 2010);

  22. 22.

    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).

  23. 23.

    The influence of snow cover on the ground thermal regime. Can. Geotech. J. 19, 421–432 (1982).

  24. 24.

    Permafrost distribution in central Canada: applications of a climate-based predictive model. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 76, 550–569 (1986).

  25. 25.

    , & A Summary of the CMIP5 Experiment Design PCMDI Tech. Rep. (WCRP, 2009);

  26. 26.

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  27. 27.

    , & Overestimated Arctic warming and underestimated Eurasia mid-latitude warming in CMIP5 simulations. Int. J. Climatol. 36, 4475–4487 (2016).

  28. 28.

    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);

  29. 29.

    et al. Determining global population distribution: methods, applications and data. Adv. Parasitol. 62, 119–156 (2006).

  30. 30.

    & Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century. Nat. Geosci. 2, 294–300 (2009).

  31. 31.

    et al. Arctic amplification: can the past constrain the future? Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1779–1790 (2010); Special theme: Arctic palaeoclimate synthesis (1674–1790).

Download references


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.

Author information


  1. University of Leeds, School of Earth and Environment, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • S. E. Chadburn
  2. University of Exeter, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • S. E. Chadburn
    • , P. M. Cox
    •  & P. Friedlingstein
  3. Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter EX1 3PB, UK

    • E. J. Burke
  4. Stockholm University, Department of Physical Geography, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • G. Hugelius
  5. University of Oslo, Department of Geosciences, PO Box 1047 Blindern, NO-0316 Oslo, Norway

    • S. Westermann


  1. Search for S. E. Chadburn in:

  2. Search for E. J. Burke in:

  3. Search for P. M. Cox in:

  4. Search for P. Friedlingstein in:

  5. Search for G. Hugelius in:

  6. Search for S. Westermann in:


S.E.C. developed the techniques, made the calculations for future projections of permafrost, and produced the plots and manuscript. S.W. and G.H. provided and analysed data for evaluation, along with advice and comments. E.J.B. extracted CMIP5 model data. P.M.C. came up with the original idea to address this question. P.M.C., E.J.B. and P.F. provided advice, ideas and discussion throughout the process. All authors contributed towards writing the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. E. Chadburn.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading