Alaska permafrost temp 001One of the less talked about consequences of climate change is the effect that cliamte warming has been having on permafrost – frozen soil with large amounts of ice mixed in that exists in the Arctic, sub-Arctic, Antarctic and mountainous regions of the world. When the climate warms, permafrost melts and releases carbon that has been stored in the soil for thousands of years into the atmosphere (in the form of the powerful greenhouse gas methane (CH4), which provokes further climate warming. As permafrost thaws and collapses, it also destroys infrastructure such as buildings, roads, pipelines and airports that have been built on top of it.

It therefore stands to reason that having a global picture of what's currently happening to permafrost as well as how it might thaw in the future is very important information to have, especially when it comes to planning infrastructure investments on a local, regional and national level.

Thanks to a consortium of experts working under the EU-financed PAGE 21 project, a tool that can provide this kind of highly valuable information has been created: the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost Database (GTN-P database for short).

The GTN-P database is a user-friendly permafrost database that can help end users take advantage of permafrost temperature and active thickness layer data that is being collected from more than 1,500 monitoring sites from around the world. The GTN-P database can also visualize permafrost data and calculate future permafrost trends. Data on permafrost is available in formats that both scientists and climate modellers can use in their work.

A lack of universal data collection standards

The fact that the GTN-P database now exists is no small feat. It has required the work of a team of qualified data management experts working for more than four years to clean up and standardise the data being collected at permafrost monitoring sites across the globe.  

One of those experts, Jean-Pierre Lanckman from PAGE 21 project partner Arctic Portal, has been diligently working on the database since 2012, putting in place its structure and standardizing the collection and interpretation of permafrost data.

“Although permafrost is an essential climate variable, it wasn’t being managed properly,” Lanckman explained. “The idea was to create a global platform where all the permafrost data in the world can be found in a standardized format.”

Scientists have been monitoring permafrost for decades in many places. However, permafrost monitoring research projects tend to have a very local focus, usually on one region or country, since they are funded by local and national governments. Many countries have also been reluctant to share permafrost data, as permafrost data has been considered strategic and even classified information.

Putting order into chaos

another major hurdle has been harmonizing data standards. In the past, research teams tended to collect permafrost data in different ways using different standards. This made it difficult to compare different regions and get a global picture of what was happening to permafrost.

Before the GTN-P, there had been a few attempts to clean up permafrost data and make them meet a global standard. The Circumpolar Arctic Layer Monitoring (CALM) Program and the Thermal State of Permafrost (TSP) Project both tried. However, neither of these attempts were successful.

“There was no global incentive for creating a global standard for collecting permafrost data,” Lanckman recalls. “It was a lot of work and no scientist was going to spend time cleaning up the data. So a permanent data manager position had to be created in order for the necessary work to be done.”

Ironically, some of the best data management happens outside of science, most notably in the military as well as the insurance, banking, automobile, telecommunication and airline industries. In each of these industries, it is essential to have people who are hired specifically to manage data.

While the GTN-P database wasn't the main objective of the PAGE 21 project, creating a portal with ready-made permafrost data that scientists could use was one of the project's key deliverables. So the consortium hired Jean-Pierre Lanckman to manage permafrost data.  This led to permafrost data from around the world finally being standardised and put into a format scientists and modellers can use.

Collecting data from around the world

The permafrost database makes use of information collected from 1,349 monitoring sites from around the world where contiguous and partially contiguous permafrost exists – mostly from the Arctic and Sub-Arctic, as well as a number of sites from the Antarctic and mountainous regions.

The GTN-P makes use of a network of national correspondents who are in charge of organising permafrost data collection within their respective countries.  These contact points in each country are responsible for making a yearly submission of data to the GTN-P.

“With the participation of each country, we have a much clearer global picture of what’s happening to permafrost - how fast it’s warming, and which regions are the greatest cause for concern."

GTN P workflow4

A welcome tool for the international modelling community

The permafrost database is also a major step forward for improving climate models.

“Before, it was only possible to incorporate atmospheric and marine data into global climate models,” Lanckman explained. “There was no comprehensive terrestrial data available in a standardised format that climate modellers could use.”

Now, the GTN-P Database allows climate modellers have a useable standardised data product that climate modellers and the rest of the scientific community can use for free, and this is important for global climate modellers.

“The global climate models used in the last IPCC reports did not include terrestrial data at all,” Lanckman continued. “Now permafrost data can finally be included in global climate models.”

Challenges

In spite of the great achievement of the network, much more work needs to be done. First and foremost, the existing database needs to be maintained, and currently there is a gap in funding now that the multi-national PAGE 21 project has come to an end. The earliest a follow-up to the PAGE 21 project funded by the EU will begin in the autumn of 2017 at the earliest. “There’s no global incentive for maintaining a project like this one,” Lanckman laments. “The funding structure of the individual countries that conduct permafrost monitoring makes it difficult.”

Coverage is also an issue. While 1,349 monitoring sites is a good start, more data points are always welcome. Some regions such as Alaska have a large number of permafrost monitoring sites. Yet other places such as the Russian Far East have comparatively few monitoring sites, making it more difficult to assess what's happening with permafrost.

When you have data points that are few and far between, it becomes difficult to accurately assess what's happening,” Lanckman explained. “The more data points you have, the more accurate picture you have of what’s going on.”

International recognition and next steps

Despite the challenges it faces, the  Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost Database is an impressive leap forward for the scientific community, and the importance of this achievement has not gone unnoticed by the scientific community.

Alfred Wegener Institute geoscientist Dr Boris Biskaborn, who has been leading the effort to establish the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost Database, will receive the WDS Data Stewardship Award at SciDataCon 2016 during International Data Week in Denver, Colorado, USA during a ceremony on September 13th. The recognition of the work done on the database is welcome news to every organization that participated in the PAGE 21 consortium.

In the future, Lanckman hopes to be able to apply the database model to other terrestrial data, such as glacier and ice sheet albedo, carbon flux, hydrology, land use, and many other key terrestrial parameters scientists and analysts would like to have a better understanding of.

“The basis for managing terrestrial data exists in the GTN-P, so if we were to build other databases for the terrestrial variables, then it would be much easier.” Lanckman stated. “However, the challenge, as always, is getting funding for these kinds of projects, and consensus from the scientific community.”

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