Thawing Permafrost

The Direct Line to the Arctic Permafrost

How warm is it currently in the Arctic permafrost in Spitsbergen?  The answer is just a click away. In 2012, AWI scientists of the Research Unit Potsdam connected the Bayelva long-term measurement station to the data network of the institute. Since then, it has been possible to receive temperature information about the frozen ground on a daily basis, including thousands of kilometres south of the Arctic archipelago. The ground station constantly measures the temperature and soil moisture of the permafrost at different depths - all the way down to the ten-metre-deep drill hole.

Since the beginning of the measurements near the Ny-Ålesund research base in 1998 scientists have observed significant thawing of the ground. "Over the past 17 years, the thawing layer has expanded by 50 centimetres," explains Dr Julia Boike, permafrost researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute. The thawing layer is the part of the ground that is not permanently frozen and thaws in the summer. During the summer months, this layer is now up to 1.5 metres deep.

"Ny-Ålesund has always been an area of continuous permafrost. This means a region where at least 90 percent of the ground is permanently frozen. However, the temperature is comparatively high. While we measure a temperature of minus 2 degrees at a depth of 10 metres in the Bayelva measurement field, in Siberia the temperature at the same depth is minus ten degrees Celsius," Dr Julia Boike explains.

Due to the relatively warm temperature, the permafrost in Spitsbergen is undergoing a so-called phase change. This means that less energy is required to thaw out the frozen ground. In addition, there are no major ice deposits in the ground, unlike, for example, in Siberia. "Our measurements in fact show that at various points on the ground surface Spitsbergen has areas in which the annual average is above zero degrees Celsius and can therefore, by definition, no longer be described as permafrost," the permafrost researcher explains.

Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen
Ny-Ålesund (Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / J. Haschek)
Bayelva soil and climate station, Spitsbergen
Bayelva (Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / A. Hormes)