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Abrupt changes across the Arctic permafrost region endanger northern development

Matters Arising to this article was published on 29 July 2020

Abstract

Extensive degradation of near-surface permafrost is projected during the twenty-first century1, which will have detrimental effects on northern communities, ecosystems and engineering systems. This degradation is predicted to have consequences for many processes, which previous modelling studies have suggested would occur gradually. Here we project that soil moisture will decrease abruptly (within a few months) in response to permafrost degradation over large areas of the present-day permafrost region, based on analysis of transient climate change simulations performed using a state-of-the-art regional climate model. This regime shift is reflected in abrupt increases in summer near-surface temperature and convective precipitation, and decreases in relative humidity and surface runoff. Of particular relevance to northern systems are changes to the bearing capacity of the soil due to increased drainage, increases in the potential for intense rainfall events and increases in lightning frequency. Combined with increases in forest fuel combustibility, these are projected to abruptly and substantially increase the severity of wildfires, which constitute one of the greatest risks to northern ecosystems, communities and infrastructures. The fact that these changes are projected to occur abruptly further increases the challenges associated with climate change adaptation and potential retrofitting measures.

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Fig. 1: Timing and magnitude of abrupt changes in soil moisture.
Fig. 2: Abrupt changes in annual cycles.
Fig. 3: Abrupt changes in land and atmosphere processes.
Fig. 4: Abrupt changes in fire severity and its drivers.

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The code used for analysis is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (grant no. RGPIN-2019-05238), the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design and the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative. The GEM simulations in this study were performed on supercomputers managed by Calcul Québec and Compute Canada.

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B.T. and L.S. designed the study and analysis. B.T. performed the climate model simulations, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. Both authors contributed to interpreting the results and made substantial improvements to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to B. Teufel.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Bryson Bates and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–8 and references

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Teufel, B., Sushama, L. Abrupt changes across the Arctic permafrost region endanger northern development. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 858–862 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0614-6

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