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AI Unveils High-Resolution Insights into Arctic Permafrost Changes

  • Category
    Ecology and Environment
  • Published
    28th Jan, 2024

Context

New insights from artificial intelligence about permafrost coverage in the Arctic may soon give policy makers and land managers the high-resolution view they need to predict climate-change-driven threats to infrastructure such as oil pipelines, roads and national security facilities.

Warming Arctic and Rapidly Changing Permafrost

  • The Arctic is experiencing warming at a rate four times faster than the global average.
  • Permafrost, a vital component of the Arctic, is undergoing rapid changes with significant consequences.

Challenges in Current Models and Infrastructure Threats

  • Existing models:Existing models lack the resolution needed to understand the impact of permafrost thaw on the environment and infrastructure.
  • Threats:Thawing permafrost poses threats to infrastructure such as oil pipelines, roads, and national security facilities.
  • Pan-Arctic models:Current pan-Arctic models have a resolution of about one-third square mile, insufficient for specific location assessments.

What is Permafrost?

  • Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen — 32°F (0°C) or colder — for at least two years
  • Permafrost is most common in regions with high mountains and in Earth’s higher latitudes — near the North and South Poles.

What Is Permafrost Made of?

  • Permafrost is made of a combination of soil, rocks and sand that are held together by ice. The soil and ice in permafrost stay frozen all year long.
  • Near the surface, permafrost soils also contain large quantities of organic carbon—a material leftover from dead plants that couldn’t decompose, or rot away, due to the cold.
  • Lower permafrost layers contain soils made mostly of minerals.
  • *A layer of soil on top of permafrost does not stay frozen all year.
  • *This layer, called the active layer, thaws during the warm summer months and freezes again in the fall.

In colder regions, the ground rarely thaws—even in the summer. There, the active layer is very thin—only 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters). In warmer permafrost regions, the active layer can be several meters thick.

Why Permafrost thawing occurs?

  • As Earth's climate warms, the permafrost is thawing. That means the ice inside the permafrost melts, leaving behind water and soil.
  • Thawing permafrost can have dramatic impacts on our planet and the things living on it.

    Innovative AI Application for Permafrost Data

    • Los Alamos National Laboratory:Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, led a team that employed supervised machine learning, a form of AI, for permafrost data analysis.
    • High-resolution view:TheAI models offer a high-resolution view, determining permafrost coverage at just under 100 square feet, surpassing the coarse resolution of current pan-Arctic models.
    • Higher Accuracy:TheLos Alamos AI model achieved an accuracy of 83% in predicting permafrost coverage, outperforming the 50% accuracy of the pan-Arctic model.

    Environmental Impacts and Thawing Permafrost Consequences

    • Large Land Extent: Permafrost covers approximately one-sixth of the exposed land in the Northern Hemisphere.
    • Environmental hazards:Thawing permafrost leads to environmental hazards, including land-surface subsidence, altered groundwater, changed soil chemistry, and the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
    • Climate change impact:Asair temperatures rise due to climate change, thawing ground releases water, impacting lower terrain, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

    AI Models Evaluation and Future Plans

    • The Los Alamos AI model demonstrated higher accuracy than the pan-Arctic model but requires further improvement for site-specific predictions.
    • The team tested three different AI approachesextremely randomized trees, support vector machines, and an artificial neural network—finding mixed results with support vector machines showing promise for transferability.
    • Future plans involve refining AI algorithms for better transferability across diverse Arctic landscapes.

    Way Forward:

    The integration of AI in permafrost analysis marks a significant advancement, offering a detailed understanding of changes in the Arctic landscape. The technology's potential to provide high-resolution data can play a crucial role in predicting and mitigating climate-change-driven threats to critical infrastructure in the region.

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