Retreating permafrost coasts threaten the fragile Arctic environment

Eroierende Steilküste der russischen Insel Muostakh (am 8.8.2012) / Coastal erosion at cliff line of Russian island Muostakh (at 8.8.2012) Copyright: Thomas Opel, AWI, Bremerhaven.

The new EU project Nunataryuk will determine the effects of permafrost thaw on Earth’s coldest shorelines. 28 partners including two research groups in the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (MPI-M) led by Tatiana Ilyina (ocean biogeochemistry in the department “The Ocean in the Earth System”)) and by Victor Brovkin (climate-biosphere interactions in the department “The Land in the Earth System) contribute to Nunataryuk, which was kicked off on 22-24 November 2017 in Potsdam.

Permafrost makes up a quarter of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere. Climate change means that Arctic coasts are thawing and eroding at an ever greater pace, releasing additional greenhouse gases. The EU project, coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), is now exploring the consequences of permafrost thawing for the global climate and for the people living in the Arctic. But that’s not all: working together with residents of the Arctic region, the researchers will also co-design strategies for the future in order to cope with ongoing climate change.

The sheer size of permafrost regions makes them a global issue. A quarter of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere consists of permafrost soils, which have been frozen solid for thousands of years. A third of the world’s coastlines are permafrost spanning Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Siberia. Researchers have known for years that the permafrost is thawing ever more rapidly due to climate change. Yet we still don’t know exactly what consequences this will have for the global climate and for the people living in the Arctic region. In the EU project Nunataryuk experts from 27 research institutions will spend the next five years addressing this research question and determining the role of permafrost coastlines in the Earth’s climate system.

Nunataryuk is quite unique by its design because the scientists collaborate closely with local communities to determine how they can best adapt to thawing permafrost. “What makes the project stand out is the fact that we’ll study both the global and the local impacts of this thawing, with co-designed projects in local communities,” says AWI geoscientist Hugues Lantuit, the project’s coordinator.

Response of Arctic shelf biogeochemistry to climate change is poorly understood. The two research groups in MPI-M contribute to Nunataryuk with pioneering large-scale modelling of sub-sea permafrost physics and biogeochemistry, aiming at reducing uncertainty in the climate-carbon feedback. “The subsea permafrost was developed during glacial cycles, when the shelf land was exposed to freezing conditions and later flooded during deglaciation. We have to deal with a unique structure of frozen land carbon buried under marine sediments”, comments Victor Brovkin. Tatiana Ilyina emphasizes a significance of their research: “Carbon stored on Arctic shelf is one of the largest uncertainties in the global carbon budget. Constraining response of permafrost carbon to climate change is a big step forward”.


More information:

The full press release on Nunataryuk is available at the AWI website:

Project website:


Contacts at MPI-M:

Prof Dr Victor Brovkin
Phone: +49 (0) 40 41173 339
victor.brovkin@we dont want 

Dr Tatiana Ilyina
Phone: +49 (0) 40 41173 164

tatiana.ilyina@we dont want