Ground Thaw

Geographer Christopher Burn explains why permafrost is thawing

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As an ordinary person, you have to think about whether they got this right by some sort of fluke, or whether we actually have some fundamental understanding that is contained in those scientific models that is being verified or vindicated.

I understand that early records of permafrost from your study areas originate from government and industry data collected in the 60s and 70s. Was climate change on these people's minds then?
In general, when these measurements were made in the western Arctic in the late 60s and early 70s, the purpose was to characterize permafrost conditions, because people were drilling wells to prepare for oil and gas development. So that was the reason rather than an appreciation of climate change and its environmental consequences. I think in the late 60s, in my field, climate change was not on the radar screen, except for considerations related to the ice ages and other global shifts in climate over geologic time.

So on whose radar screen did it first pop up?
One of the grandfathers of the science of climate change was a man called Hubert H. Lamb. He was a British fellow. And I can remember one of the things he did was to read ship's logs from Elizabethan times. He would try to reconstruct the weather and climate around the coast of the British Isles nearly 500 years ago and show that it wasn't the same was what people experience today.

Would you have predicted the change you've witnessed in the Arctic landscape?
The only comment I would make is that I've been surprised, particularly in the last five years, at the rate of change in the landscape.

What have the past 24 years of work taught you to expect from the next 24?
As our great climate change experiment continues, I am sure we will learn much about the behavior of northern ecosystems. Unfortunately, we may wish we had known some things earlier and had been able to prevent certain events that have come to pass.

A great challenge of science is to anticipate the future and suggest a likely range of future conditions, for the earth is too complex to allow definitive prediction over long time scales.


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