Results from International Polar Year permafrost study published

January 10, 2011


Vladimir Romanovsky, a Geophysical Institute professor with the Snow, Ice and Permafrost group, was the lead author of a paper that revealed permafrost warming continues throughout a wide swath of the Northern Hemisphere. In the report, published in the April-June 2010 edition of Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, Romanovsky and a team of scientists describe the thermal state of high-latitude permafrost during the International Polar Year, 2007-2009.


“This paper is actually pretty unique,” Romanovsky said, “because it’s the first time such a large geographical area has been involved in one paper.”


During the IPY, Romanovsky and his colleagues launched a field campaign to improve the existing permafrost-monitoring network. The thermal state is monitored with borehole sensors, which gather data from holes drilled deep into the permafrost. The researchers established nearly 300 borehole sites that serve as permafrost observatories across the polar and sub-polar regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Their work more than doubled the size of the previously existing network.


“The heart of monitoring is the measuring of temperatures in boreholes,” Romanovsky said. “For permafrost temperatures, you have to be there. You have to establish boreholes.”


Having data from across the circumpolar north allows scientists to analyze trends affecting permafrost. The article notes that permafrost temperatures have warmed as much as two degrees Celsius from 20 to 30 years ago. They also found that permafrost near zero degrees Celsius warmed more slowly than colder permafrost. According to Romanovsky, this trend is an example of the large-scale analysis possible using data from the expanded network.


Romanovsky, whose specialty is Russian and North American permafrost conditions, plans to keep building on the legacy of the IPY. With help from a five-year National Science Foundation grant, he continues his collaboration with American and international colleagues, establishing new borehole sites in under-sampled areas and analyzing trends evidenced by the newly available data.


The Fourth IPY was a two-year event that began in March of 2007 and focused the attention of the international research community on Earth’s polar regions. GI scientists and students were heavily involved in IPY projects and are still analyzing the resulting data.