High-Elevation Permafrost More Vulnerable to Rising Temperatures than Arctic Permafrost

Nature Communications, 14 March 2022

Even at current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, 60% of high-elevation “alpine” permafrost and 20% of Arctic permafrost may be lost in the near future. Most alpine permafrost is located in the Tibetan Plateau, but is also found in the Mongolian Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, and other global mountain ranges at elevations where the air temperature is consistently below freezing. This study uses a warm period during the mid-Pliocene (3 to 3.3 million years ago) with similar atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to today as an analog for our current and near-future climate. Given the precedent set by the mid-Pliocene, alpine permafrost is expected to be far more vulnerable to thawing than Arctic permafrost as global temperatures rise. Increased risk of landslides, flooding and infrastructure damage in mountain regions will follow and worsen should temperatures exceed such levels further.