Alaska is getting wetter. That’s bad news for permafrost and the climate



Alaska is getting wetter. A new study spells out what that means for the permafrost that underlies about 85% of the state, and the consequences for Earth’s global climate.

The study, published today in Nature Publishing Group journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, is the first to compare how rainfall is affecting permafrost thaw across time, space, and a variety of ecosystems. It shows that increased summer rainfall is degrading permafrost across the state.

As Siberia remains in the headlines for record-setting heat waves and wildfires, Alaska is experiencing the rainiest five years in its century-long meteorological record. Extreme weather on both ends of the spectrum–hot and dry versus cool and wet–are driven by an aspect of climate change called Arctic amplification. As the earth warms, temperatures in the Arctic rise faster than the global average.

While the physical basis of Arctic amplification is well understood, it is less known how it will affect the permafrost that underlies about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, including most of Alaska. Permafrost locks about twice the carbon that is currently in the atmosphere into long-term storage and supports Northern infrastructure like roads and buildings; so understanding how a changing climate will affect it is crucial for both people living in the Arctic and those in lower latitudes.

“In our research area the winter has lost almost three weeks to summer,” says study lead author and Fairbanks resident Thomas A. Douglas, who is a scientist with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. “This, along with more rainstorms, means far more wet precipitation is falling every summer.”

Over the course of five years, the research team took 2750 measurements of how far below the land’s surface permafrost had thawed by the end of summer across a wide range of environments near Fairbanks, Alaska. The five-year period included two summers with average precipitation, one that was a little drier than usual, and the top and third wettest summers on record. Differences in annual rainfall were clearly imprinted in the amount of permafrost thaw.

More rainfall led to deeper thaw across all sites. After the wettest summer in 2014, permafrost didn’t freeze back to previous levels even after subsequent summers were drier. Wetlands and disturbed sites, like trail crossings and clearings, showed the most thaw. Tussock tundra, with its deep soils and covering of tufted grasses, has been found to provide the most ecosystem protection of permafrost. While permafrost was frozen closest to the surface in tussock tundra, it experienced the greatest relative increase in the depth of thaw in response to rainfall, possibly because water could pool on the flat surface. Forests, especially spruce forests with thick sphagnum moss layers, were the most resistant to permafrost thaw. Charlie Koven, an Earth system modeler with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used the field measurements to build a heat balance model that allowed the team to better understand how rain was driving heat down into the permafrost ground.

The study demonstrates how land cover types govern relationships between summer rainfall and permafrost thaw. As Alaska becomes warmer and wetter, vegetation cover is projected to change and wildfires will disturb larger swathes of the landscape. Those conditions may lead to a feedback loop between more permafrost thaw and wetter summers.

In the meantime, rainfall–and the research–continue. Douglas says, “I was just at one of our field sites and you need hip waders to get to areas that used to be dry or only ankle deep with water. It is extremely wet out there. So far this year we have almost double the precipitation of a typical year.”

“This study adds to the growing body of knowledge about how extreme weather–ranging from heat spells to intense summer rains–can disrupt foundational aspects of Arctic ecosystems,” says Merritt Turetsky, Director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and a coauthor of the study. “These changes are not occurring gradually over decades or lifetimes; we are watching them occur over mere months to years.”


From EurekAlert!

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Martin Howard Keith Brumby
July 26, 2020 10:19 pm

“Wet precipitation”?
Rather than dry precipitation?
Obviously worse than we thunk.

Steve Case
Reply to  Martin Howard Keith Brumby
July 26, 2020 11:09 pm

Martin Howard Keith Brumby July 26, 2020 at 10:19 pm
“Wet precipitation”? Rather than dry precipitation?

It’s much more “sciency” than merely saying rain or snow.

Mark Hansford
Reply to  Martin Howard Keith Brumby
July 27, 2020 4:25 am

hot and dry at the same time as cool and wet in the Arctic. Dont these researchers ever ‘get’ irony. With those 2 parameters alone appearing at the same time surely they can see what B/s making a climate prediction like this is!

Reply to  Martin Howard Keith Brumby
July 27, 2020 5:12 am

as oppose to solid precipitation — snow and hail

David Guy-Johnson
Reply to  Steven Mosher
July 27, 2020 6:09 am

Mosher. Which is also wet

Reply to  David Guy-Johnson
July 27, 2020 11:31 pm

silly them, they make a distinction that is easy to understand. you have to try to misunderstand it.

snow is considered dry if it is made up of mostly ice crystals

hence the terms wet snow and dry snow

Reply to  Steven Mosher
July 27, 2020 6:19 am

Then the term would be liquid precipitation.

Reply to  LdB
July 27, 2020 6:42 am

It’s climate science, don’t expect them to be precise.

Reply to  LdB
July 27, 2020 11:34 pm

it is sometimes called liquid precipitation. yes

go figure

you can read for COMPREHENSION ( trying to understand) or you can read to

in some cases both snow and rain are referred to as wet

Jeffery P
Reply to  Steven Mosher
July 27, 2020 6:52 am

Thank you for your answer. I don’t understand the snarky replies to your explanation. You didn’t just coin that term, right?

Joel Snider
Reply to  Jeffery P
July 27, 2020 10:48 am

People are just tired of Mosher being such an unrelenting conceited douchebag – the response he gets is because he’s made his own bed.

Reply to  Jeffery P
July 27, 2020 8:25 pm

You didn’t just coin that term, right?

He did not.

“Precipitation is any form of water particle, whether liquid or solid, that falls from the atmosphere and reaches the ground.”

July 26, 2020 10:24 pm

Did those crack researchers think about the profoundly warmer Eemian Interglacial?

Reply to  Sunsettommy
July 27, 2020 6:47 am

Or the Roman Warm Period, which a recent study found to be 2C warmer than today.

Rich Davis
Reply to  MarkW
July 27, 2020 9:58 am

Oh nonsense Mark. Everyone knows that the Roman Warm Period was only in Rome. Probably only on one side of the Tiber river. In a small neighborhood. Just ask any troll.

I think I remember mosh telling us it was caused by changes in Roman pollution control regulations that caused a sudden drop in aerosols. Don’t quote me on that. It might have been griff.

Joel Snider
Reply to  Rich Davis
July 27, 2020 12:10 pm

I think their SUV-sized chariots had something to do with it too – you know, the big ones with eight farting horses.

Geo Rubik
Reply to  Sunsettommy
July 27, 2020 12:10 pm

They are looking at the only real time frame that matters. The last 100 years. Well, the only time frame that matters to them.

July 26, 2020 10:27 pm

More about the climate horrors of Alaska’s thawing permafrost

David Guy-Johnson
July 26, 2020 10:30 pm

Is Alaska getting wetter?

Patrick MJD
Reply to  David Guy-Johnson
July 27, 2020 12:54 am

No. I think it broke off from Russia, y’know the alternate Chinese republic. All that ice, sheesh!

Reply to  David Guy-Johnson
July 27, 2020 6:48 am

It’s a Baked Alaska.

Alan Robertson
Reply to  David Guy-Johnson
July 27, 2020 10:19 am

Just about everywhere seems to be getting wetter, of late.
More checkmarks in Svensmark’s column, or coincidental correlation?

Dennis G Sandberg
July 26, 2020 10:47 pm

Alaska is a big state. All of 65% with permafrost is “getting wetter”…All, not 90%, 60% or something else?

Reply to  Dennis G Sandberg
July 26, 2020 11:09 pm

NOAA says There has been no long-term trend showing any increase in precipitation in Alaska.

There was an increase in summer rain for four years which might coincide with the study.

But the fact that one of the authors points to month to month events and multi-year changes as *evidence* in FAVOR of climate change pretty much puts her in the category of frothing at the mouth alarmism…


“ Average annual precipitation amounts vary greatly across Alaska. Coastal mountain ranges in the southeastern panhandle receive more than 200 inches per year, while totals drop to 60 inches south of the Alaska Range, 12 inches in the interior, and less than 6 inches in the North Slope. The record amount of rainfall to occur in a 24-hour period was 15.05 inches at Seward in southcentral Alaska in October 1986. The record maximum snowfall in a 24-hour period was 78 inches on February 9,1963 at Mile 47 Camp along Highway 4 in the southeastern portion of the state. The driest multi-year periods were in the 1950s and late 1960s/early 1970s, and the wettest period was in the late 1920s (Figure 5). The driest 5-year period was 1968-1972 and the wettest was 1928-1932. Since the late 1980s, total annual precipitation in Alaska has been above the long-term average except for a dry period in the late 1990s. There is considerable regional variability, however, as portions of interior and Arctic Alaska have observed a long-term decrease in precipitation. Also, for the summer season, the latest 5-year period (2010–2014) is the wettest on record (Figure 3c). As with average precipitation, the occurrence of extreme precipitation events is highly variable and is both regionally and seasonally dependent. Most of Alaska has seen an increase in extreme precipitation events (the heaviest one percent of 3-day precipitation totals) since the mid-20th century; however, there is no statewide average trend in the number of days with precipitation exceeding 1 inch since 1950, and the highest values occurred in the 1930s.”

Reply to  Dennis G Sandberg
July 27, 2020 6:48 am

They are only looking at the area around Fairbanks, and the data only goes back 100 years.

July 26, 2020 11:04 pm

Damn those SUVs!!! We need to go back to bicycles like the Younger Dryas did after the Neanderthals brought on the great ice age with their excesses.

Just like scientist Dennis Quaid said in the future documentary “The Day After Tomorrow”, “When will we ever learn!”

July 26, 2020 11:15 pm

Geez, a few years of wet weather and now predictions that all the permafrost will melt. It’a been a real cold, wet spring and summer so far in BC too until today. Just weather. Actually, all of Canada and much of northern USA was also deep permafrost, where it isn’t shield rock for about 100,000 years under a mile or two of ice and much of that permafrost melted without any issue. Probably added a few points to the CO2 score. which enabled life to flourish on the good Earth.

Actually the melting of the permafrost would be a good thing, as then vegetation could really grow deep roots and new bigger forests. There would be a one-off methane release, which turns to CO2 mostly within a dozen years or so. Orders of magnitude more ‘carbon’ would be locked up for the next 100-200 years than any adverse effect from the one time Methane release. Why don’t they tell the other side of the story? Or am I not thinking correctly?

Louis Hooffstetter
Reply to  Earthling2
July 28, 2020 11:58 pm

Your thinking seems sound spot on to me.

Joel O’Bryan
July 27, 2020 12:23 am


Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
July 27, 2020 12:38 am

Everbody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.

Reply to  brians356
July 27, 2020 4:03 am

Love that!

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
July 27, 2020 5:15 am

yes they call it weather, extreme weather was the words they used

David Guy-Johnson
Reply to  Steven Mosher
July 27, 2020 6:10 am

What extreme weather?

Reply to  Steven Mosher
July 27, 2020 6:51 am

Would that be the words NOAA used when they stated that there is no trend in extreme weather?

Henry Pool
July 27, 2020 12:30 am

I doubt the results of this study.
Is this supported with actual data on rainfall at places?

July 27, 2020 12:32 am

Say What?
Are they worried that Alaska might actually become useful for growing something ?

July 27, 2020 1:42 am

If they are talking about precipitation in Alaska, then surely that means that the temperatures have been pretty average over there. Otherwise the focus would be in the temperatures.

Carl Friis-Hansen
July 27, 2020 1:57 am

Melting permafrost makes gold digging more profitable and viable, so maybe it is time to move to Alaska to dig for gold.

A C Osborn
Reply to  Carl Friis-Hansen
July 27, 2020 2:24 am

Have you not watched the Gold Rush TV Series?
They are already in Alaska during the non frozen season, taking out Millions in Gold.

Carl Friis-Hansen
Reply to  A C Osborn
July 27, 2020 3:12 am

Yes, great series in which it was obvious that the diggers gave up several places as they hit permafrost.
On another, but related, note Denmark is still paying the cost of maintaining Greenland. In my view they mainly do so, because Denmark hope to earn on the minerals in Greenland, as advances in technique makes mining there more viable.

Mumbles McGuirck
Reply to  Carl Friis-Hansen
July 27, 2020 5:57 am

No wonder DJT wanted to buy it for the USA. You’d think our POTUS was a savvy business man. 😁

July 27, 2020 2:09 am

‘While the physical basis of Arctic amplification is well understood’ -is written – OK – so my question is – explain this well understood physical basis of Arctic amplification and then it’s written;

‘Permafrost locks about twice the carbon that is currently in the atmosphere into long-term storage and supports Northern infrastructure like roads and buildings;’ – all in one sentence – seriously?

OK so how do they know and then measure that permafrost locks about 2X the carbon that is now in the atmosphere???

and this long term carbon storage apparently supports Northern infrastructure like roads and buildings ???

what this sentence is non-sensical

Reply to  Katie
July 27, 2020 5:07 am

Claim:‘While the physical basis of Arctic amplification is well understood’.
Science:”The precise mechanisms driving Arctic amplification are still under debate.”
Source: .
It’s a preprint, however it summarises the state of knowledge pretty good.
What to say about the paper in question? Overconfidence at least.

Reply to  Katie
July 27, 2020 6:55 am

There is carbon frozen within the ice. What’s nonsensical about that?
The fact that many buildings and roads rest on this ice is also well known. Having buildings sink when the permafrost under them melts is a well known problem in the region.

Reply to  MarkW
July 27, 2020 9:29 am

Usually it is the building itself, or the highway/road, that causes more ground heat retention as in the case under a building. Even a building on stilts affects the heat radiation to ground over time. Black asphalt highways is a no brainer why the road gets loopy. One way to deal with this is drilling holes into the permafrost and then inserting hollow pipe which allows the cold weather winter air to circulate freezing -40 air and maintain the ice for the 7-8 months of freezing temps. That holds it over for the 4-5 months of higher summer temps.

But these are the majority of cases we hear about, with the resulting pictures of collapsing buildings and roads. Some sea shore erosion too, but that has always been going on in interglacials. No doubt there is other permafrost melting as well, as described with the rain, but in the scheme of things, things are still melting from end of the last glacial advance.

Reply to  MarkW
July 28, 2020 1:02 am

ok thank you MarkW and frankclimate – however – carbon in the form of ??????

so this is what is nonsensical about it;

just straight elemental sooty carbon or molecules of CO2 as well and/ or calcium carbonate

are you saying that whole towns and infrastructure are built on, for example, how many metres of ice on average?? – well know in this region

July 27, 2020 2:14 am

Models overestimate “Arctic Amplificstion”

The Amplified Arctic Warming in the Recent Decades may Have Been Overestimated by CMIP5 Models
Jianbin Huang Tinghai Ou Deliang Chen Yong Luo Zongci Zhao
First published: 03 November 2019

July 27, 2020 2:34 am

So the last five years have been wetter than average. Why does that imply that it will be wetter still in the future? Answer, it doesn’t, it is just as likely to return to the average or even go below it.

Richard M
Reply to  Stonyground
July 27, 2020 5:48 am

The PDO went positive in 2014. Most likely this is the cause of the recent higher precipitation. When it goes negative again (2022?), then the reverse will happen and that will probably be blamed on climate change as well.

I wonder what the average of this century would tell us? Maybe no change over long term averages?

Bruce of Newcastle
Reply to  Richard M
July 27, 2020 4:01 pm

The link between Alaskan rainfall and the PDO is well known. And the PDO is a part of the ~60 year thermohaline cycle. The climateers love to start their data at the bottom of the cycle and say hey look global warming does X and Y!!! Which is an artefact that disappears when the cycle reverses direction.

Of course you don’t get much yummy climate money for tracking natural phenomena that humans have no control over.

Reply to  Stonyground
July 27, 2020 6:56 am

According to the alarmists, any bad trend will continue forever. Any good trend is just weather.

Reply to  MarkW
July 28, 2020 9:29 am

So True.

Ron Long
July 27, 2020 3:06 am

In August, 1967, I was a student-field assistant on a mercury exploration project along the lower kuskokwim River below Red Devil. The project was an experiment with the US Bureau of Mines to see how to deal with permafrost and take samples of the obvious mercury mineralization (the name Red Devil is for the mercury sulfide mineral cinnabar, which is brilliant red). We drilled holes like Catherine in the photo, then we put sticks of dynamite down the hole and blew up the permafrost. Small cracks in the ice radiated out from the blasthole but it was ineffective. WE used a large water canon, a monitor, and the inventor of the Intelligiant, John Miscovich, from Flat, Alaska, personally taught us to use the monitor (cut with speed, transport with volumen). The US Bureau of Mines tried a D-8 bulldozer with rippers. Nothing gazed the permafrost and the exploration project was abandoned. Now, when I read these horror stories about permafrost, I just laugh. The end to this story is well known to a lot of Alaskans and it includes the permafrost winning.

Reply to  Ron Long
August 1, 2020 11:13 pm

Interesting piece of history Ron. Thank you for it. We live downriver at Bethel.

July 27, 2020 3:08 am

This “perma” frost might have already melted before :

An old forest buried some 1000 years ago under an Alaska glacier (Mendenhall Glacier) is poping out, showing that the climate was warmer than today – warm enough to sustain a forest – in this location during the Medieval Optimum.

And despite this very plausible melting of the permafrost – at least – during the Medieval Optimum, no catastrophic warming occurred.

And this gem from the EurekAlert! sharticle :
“As Alaska becomes warmer and wetter, vegetation cover is projected to change and wildfires will disturb larger swathes of the landscape. ”

So a wetter climate and more vegetation induces more wildfires. Indeed, there are no wildfires in the desert and more vegetation will not disturb anyone or anything expect the brain of some climate clowns.

Reply to  Petit_Barde
July 27, 2020 3:49 am

You know, why in deserts are no more wildfires ?
First there were wildfires, second, there are deserts now. 😀

July 27, 2020 3:41 am

“Is getting wetter” is almost certainly piffle, what is probably true is that recent years have been wetter than a certain period in the past. “Is getting …” is deeply unscientific and lacking in integrity, hence is ubiquitous in these woke times where feelings and agendas matter more than facts.

July 27, 2020 5:27 am

There has been a persistent expansive warm blob of water in the Gulf of Alaska for a few years now which definitely influences the jet stream as it comes out of Russia. It primarily has been fed by the El Niño and tropical warmer than average waters moving north on currents.

The El Niño is now gone and is transitioning into a La Niña taking away the source. As a subsequence, the waters in the GOM will cool as the heat is given up and there is no warm water to replace it. As with everything in the oceans, it takes time but it will ultimately cycle as will the weather patterns it governs. Once the colder water is in place it will persist until somewhere down the road warmer waters will return and the pattern repeats.

Richard M
Reply to  rbabcock
July 27, 2020 5:53 am

Exactly. Since 2014 every year but one has had El Nino conditions for at least part of the year.

Reply to  Richard M
July 27, 2020 6:59 am

If I were an alarmist, I would declare that the last 6 years without a solid La Nina would prove that CO2 has made La Ninas a thing of the past.

Reply to  rbabcock
July 27, 2020 10:25 am

Alaskan temps in general this past winter (2019-2020) were colder than average.

Rich Davis
Reply to  beng135
July 27, 2020 10:37 am

Colder, therefore the distraction about more rain.

How dare you introduce facts into this narrative.

Reply to  rbabcock
July 27, 2020 11:00 am

GOM= GOA (Gulf of Alaska)… sorry

Mumbles McGuirck
July 27, 2020 6:05 am

Permafrost … “supports Northern infrastructure like roads and buildings; ”

So, no one knows how to build roads or buildings in regular soil???

Reply to  Mumbles McGuirck
July 27, 2020 7:00 am

Where do they find the regular soil to build on?

Reply to  MarkW
July 27, 2020 8:33 am

Just about any south facing hillside will be permafrost free anywhere near the surface here in Fairbanks. Where my house is at on a south facing slope, our well is 368 feet deep. They did not encounter permafrost during the drilling process. Less than 1/2 mile on the north face of the same hill is the permafrost research center and experimental tunnel, it is about 700 feet lower in elevation. Less than 600 feet north of my house is the ridge and permafrost is abundant in the black spruce on the other side of the ridge. Lots of good soils found on the south facing slopes.

Reply to  Aksurveyor
July 28, 2020 12:03 am

Thank you Aksurveyor, Great information!

Does this mean that builders prefer south facing hillside to build on? I guess you avoid a lot of cost and potential problems by building on permafrost free ground.

If so, can this be seen in the landscape, that south facing hills are more developed than other places?


Reply to  Jan Kjetil Andersen
July 28, 2020 11:45 am

Lol, yes you can see from Google Earth, 64.95n, -147.61w near Fox the clear definition of the ridgeline where the permafrost line is at. There are always the diehard types that want a north facing structure to see the northern lights, they have to build on pilings as another poster mentioned. Building in permafrost always will cost more.
Current methods for road construction include 6″ or more of foam insulation board with 2 to 4 feet of 8″ rock on top of that, then 2 feet of class A material, 8″ of 1″ minus then 2 to 4 inches of asphalt pavement.
This may last 2 to 4 years before the frost heaves take over, always hope for longer.

Reply to  Jan Kjetil Andersen
July 28, 2020 11:49 am

Also if you are financing a new home one of the requirements is to have the lot/location of the building footprint drilled to a depth of 30′ to test for permafrost before construction or loan application is approved.

Jan Kjetil Andersen
Reply to  Jan Kjetil Andersen
July 28, 2020 10:12 pm

ou can see from Google Earth, 64.95n, -147.61w near Fox the clear definition of the ridgeline where the permafrost line is at.

Very interesting indeed.

The media usually focus on the negative effects the permafrost melting has for the buildings on top of the existing permafrost. However, A positive side-effect in the long run is that the permafrost free areas increases.

More good soil to build on.

July 27, 2020 6:41 am

“in its century-long meteorological record”

In other words, we know nothing about the past climate of Alaska.

July 27, 2020 6:45 am

“Over the course of five years, the research team took 2750 measurements of how far below the land’s surface permafrost had thawed by the end of summer across a wide range of environments near Fairbanks, Alaska.”

So they are only talking about Fairbanks, not the entire state.

July 27, 2020 7:35 am

As Siberia remains in the headlines, Alaska is experiencing a catastrophe? I’m still waiting for the day when climate change arrives at a place where average people can verify and confirm it.

July 27, 2020 8:10 am

Might have missed something but I did not see PDO or ENSO mentioned.

Reply to  ResourceGuy
July 27, 2020 8:27 am

Both can’t be blamed to climate change.

July 27, 2020 9:13 am

Finally, something I know about: Alaska…North to the Future, the Last Frontier, etc. Used to live there; grew up there; from 1957, before it was a state; been all over; have many relatives up there even now, some are Natives. I was up there only last fall. I was shocked to see the climate in Alaska is now way too medium!

Interestingly, several years ago I heard a climate scare story on NPR about a fella who was farming somewhere in western Alaska. They gave the impression the permafrost was melting which made it possible for him to do that. I was skeptical. Did a search and found “Permafrost Farming: It’s Possible!” on It was in Bethel and the truth is the permafrost is not melting unless you scrap it bare like Tim Meyers does and leave it set for two years. Meyer’s Farm has a website as well. Worth looking at, huge veggies. On the down side he is killing the Earth. /sarc.

William Haas
July 27, 2020 2:30 pm

There is nothing to worry about here. The Eemian was significantly warmer than today with higher sea levels and more ice cap melting yet there was no climate tipping point. The last ice age followed.

July 27, 2020 5:00 pm

“wildfires will disturb larger swathes of the landscape” & hipwaders.
huh. go figure.

July 27, 2020 9:41 pm

No end to being doomed yet.

Matthew Sykes
July 27, 2020 11:11 pm

“While the physical basis of Arctic amplification is well understood” Understood, and then lied about.

Loss of arctic sea ice is a negative feedback, not positive. Ice insulates the ocean, prevents heat loss.

This is well known, yet is lied about constantly with the suggestion that the ‘dark ocean’ absorbs sunlight and thus warms in the absence of ice.

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