And those sinkholes are releasing a ton of carbon.
Need a reminder that what we do has consequences far beyond our intentions? Here’s a good one, highlighted by Mother Jones: Wildfires, made more common by our planet’s warming temperatures, are creating sinkholes in the Arctic. Making matters worse, these sinkholes hold centuries’ worth of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere and exacerbates the conditions in a destructive feedback loop.
Here’s an overview of what is happening, according to new research published in the journal One Earth. The planet is warming, largely due to the ongoing burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions into the atmosphere. That is causing more instances of outlier weather, including an increase in the number of lightning storms in the Arctic. Usually, the air in this area doesn’t have the convective heat required to create lightning, but as temperatures rise, that has changed.
It doesn’t stop at lightning storms, though, because climate change doesn’t just change one thing — it changes everything. While lightning flashes above, down on the ground, the Arctic is greening. Warmer temperatures and a suddenly more livable climate has allowed more plant species to flourish in the typically frozen region. Those plants absorb more sun, which exacerbates heating in the region and can lead to those plants drying out.
This brings us back to those lightning storms. The fact that there is more lightning also means there are more opportunities for lightning strikes. Normally, that wouldn’t mean much in the Arctic, where permafrost — ground that as been frozen for at least two years straight — leaves little to ignite. But that permafrost is thawing and instead, there are dried plants that serve as ideal kindling to start a fire when lightning strikes.
The Arctic has been burning at record levels, destroying peatlands that were previously protected by permafrost but are now exposed. That peat holds tons of carbon, which it has been holding onto for centuries. It is a massive carbon sink and it’s all getting released as it burns. These changes are happening so fast that they are literally altering the landscape of the Arctic, creating massive sinkholes caused by the rapidly melting permafrost.
If that isn’t bad enough, consider the feedback loop that this creates: The fires cause more hot air to rise into the atmosphere, which creates the conditions that cause more thunderclouds that can produce more lightning storms. The fires also char the ground and darken it. This makes that land absorb more sun and heat up even faster, leading to more melting of permafrost, which leads to the release of more carbon, which heats up the planet.
Climate change is never just the one storm, the one disaster, the one outlier — it is the entire planet changing. It is ecosystems that were designed to survive in certain stable conditions seeing those conditions thrown out the window. What we’re left with is a perfect storm that, if we don’t do something about it, just might doom us.