The Arctic is at the epicenter of several environmental and economic crises involving land conservation, oil exploration, coal mining, global warming, and expanded development. An ecological phenomenon lies below this environmental hotspot and forms the foundation (literally) of the Alaskan Arctic; permafrost. Climate change has recently started to tamper with the stability of the active layer of permafrost, jeopardizing all of the aforementioned ventures and endangering the livelihoods of not only native ecosystems, but native inhabitants as well.
The disappearance of permafrost has a multitude of costs that are both short term and long term. The combined effects of oil development and melting permafrost could potentially create an extremely hazardous environment in the Arctic. Unstable, warmer permafrost is a result of rising temperatures in the North and causes land surfaces to be tremendously tenuous for structures, roads, and in particular, oil pipelines. Surface instability could break oil structures, thus triggering spills and leakages into the precious habitats of the Arctic. In addition to these direct consequences of permafrost degradation, there are also indirect effects of melting and decomposing permafrost, including the onslaught of methane into the atmosphere. Furthermore, there’s a possibility that either ocean or terrestrial permafrost could be holding gas hydrates, which are potentially huge sinks for methane. Because methane is a greenhouse gas, it causes the atmosphere to heat up, thus permafrost reduction is an example of a potential positive feedback loop between melting permafrost and increased climate change. While most of the harmful side effects of permafrost depletion are hypothetical and ambiguous, the prospective catastrophic consequences should not be ignored.
The delicate ecosystems of the North should not have to additionally deal with dangerous oil pipelines and increased development. Permafrost depletion is just one of many reasons oil companies should not drill in the pristine territories of Alaskan wilderness. Permafrost reduction and surface instability are two more reasons that must be added to the Chill the Drills list of defenses against oil development in the Arctic.