Climate change isn’t just melting the polar ice caps, it’s also melting the once permanently frozen land across the top of our planet.
No, they aren’t drunk in the conventional sense, from a night of heavy partying. However, because of their odd, almost drunken angles, locals in the area have called them “drunken trees.” Scientists studying the root cause began using the local term of endearment, so the nickname stuck.
As the planet warms, the permafrost melts – which is unusual in of itself. Permafrost used to be permanently frozen ground, surrounding a ring in the northern most parts of Alaska, Canada’s Arctic, and the far north of Russia and Europe. But warmer temperatures in the north are melting the once permanently frozen land – the permafrost.
As the permafrost melts, it causes soil erosion, causing the ground to buckle, and sink, often in pools of water.
Many trees don’t survive, their roots have nothing to hold onto, and they collapse. Other trees drown in the excessive water from the melting permafrost.
The fewer remaining trees that do survive, grow in odd patches, tilting at extreme angles because of the shifting of the landmass beneath them. It’s these odd looking extreme angles which give them the appearance of being “drunken.”
Scientists and other researchers that study such things call this a thermokarst. “Thermo” means heat and “karst” refers to collapse. Thermokarst is the technical term for any ground that has collapsed because of melting permafrost within that ground.
If enough of the meltwater collects in a depression of sunken land, it can form a thermokarst lake or a thermokarst marsh – often with drunken trees surrounding them.
It’s not uncommon for trees to grow up along extreme angles. Landslides, earthquakes, even meteor strikes have changed landscapes in the past, leaving extremely tilted trees in their path. However, the lack of additional causes, the creation of sinkholes, and the increase of ground water prove a thermokarst is taking place.
The melting permafrost isn’t just affecting the trees, it’s having a huge impact on the people that live and work in the area. Slumping land cracks pavement, breaks pipelines, and causes sinkholes to open, swallowing roads, and buildings.
The melting ice crystals below the ground can cause sinkholes as large as 10 meters (33 feet). That’s big enough to swallow an entire house.
Families have been forced from their homes, because their houses are no longer safe to live in, because the land underneath their homes has sunk and shifted due to melting permafrost.
Many others have resorted to expensive repairs on their homes, to fix cracks in walls and roofs, caused by the melting and slumping land beneath their homes and businesses.
Wildlife is also being affected, as researchers note declines in spawning fish, nesting birds and small mammals, because of the changing climate reducing these species natural habitats.
Some climate models say most of the planet’s permafrost could be gone by the end of the century – melted by increased global temperatures.
This will increase the number of drunken trees and damaged homes, businesses and roads.
Currently, drunken trees account for about 7 to 8 percent of the boreal forests of the north, but that number is expected to increase as the permafrost continues to melt.
Some of the roads in the areas affected have to be rebuilt every few years. Engineers in Alaska have added insulation to some test roads, to see if that reduces the need for these costly repairs. However, the insulation itself was expensive too.
Then there is the cost of having to abandon your home, and find a new one to live in, because your current home becomes unsafe as the land underfoot literally sinks, shifts and floods.
One tribal Alaskan village decided to move the entire village, because their entire community was sinking and drowning because of the melting permafrost.
One of the greatest ironies of the melting permafrost is it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we burn fossil fuels, which warm our planet, the permafrost melts, releasing methane from the thawing of the frozen ground, into our atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to a warming climate.
Although it’s never too late to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we cannot prevent methane from escaping while the permafrost melts.