The permafrost is rapidly receding, especially in the European part of the Russian Arctic. Between 1995 and 2005, the southern boundary of the regions with continuous permafrost, i.e. of those areas where at least 90 per cent of the landscape is underlain by permafrost, receded by up to 50 kilometres; in those with discontinuous permafrost, where the number lies between 10 and 90 per cent, the boundary receded by as much as 80 kilometres.

Animation: Permafrost – what is it?

Research on coastal erosion

Herschel Island: a remote location covered with the lichens, mosses and grasses of the tundra, bordered by steep and eroding cliffs, and characterised by temperatures that only crawl above freezing between June and September – but for AWI researcher Hugues Lantuit and the team from his Young Investigators Group COPER (which stands for Coastal Permafrost Prosion, Organic Carbon and Nutrient Release in the Arctic Nearshore Zone), it’s the ideal field laboratory. Lantuit and his team want to determine how fast the permafrost is thawing on the island, a process causing entire stretches of coast to crumble and fill the surrounding Beaufort Sea with the carbon and nutrients that had become trapped in the soil over the millennia. Since 2006, Lantuit has travelled summer after summer to the island, which is located at the northernmost tip of Canada’s Yukon Territory, and has been accompanied by his COPER Team since 2012.

Permafrost at a glance

Fast forward permafrost

Two time lapse movies from geoscientist Dr Julia Boike. The first one impressively shows how permafrost in the Arctic thaws. In the summer of 2012 scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute had placed an automatic camera on the Eastern shore of the river Lena on the Samoylov island. Every four hours the camera took a picture over the course of 10 days and captured how the frozen ground retreats. The second movie shows how scientists build a soil station in the Arctic permafrost. For this they installed sensors, which will tell them what happens underneath the surface.