Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on May 12, 2021
In addition to environmental consequences, permafrost thaw carries significant and multi-faceted security implications — direct and indirect, ongoing and potential, local and global.
Security implications of climate change: The case of permafrost thaw

This article is part of GP-ORF series — From Alpha Century to Viral World: The Raisina Young Fellows Speak.

In recent years, the world has seen more extreme manifestations of climate change, from rising sea levels to heatwaves, floods and hurricanes. Permafrost thaw is one such extreme condition, termed by the United Nations (UN) as one of the five most significant emerging environmental issues in 2019<1>. As discussions on climate change are likely to intensify in the coming years, it is important to understand why permafrost thaw matters and what it means for policymaking — a powerful illustration that environmental issues can have wide-ranging and serious implications for international security.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is the ground below the Earth’s surface that remains continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years, with parts dating back thousands of years, and at depths ranging from a few metres to over one kilometre<2>. It covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere and 17 percent of the Earth’s exposed land surface<3>. It is mainly found in the Arctic region, present beneath about 80 percent of Alaska, 50 percent of Canada and 60 percent of Russia, among others. It is also present in high mountains across the world, such as the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes<4>.

Permafrost covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere and 17 percent of the Earth’s exposed land surface.

Permafrost has three main characteristics. First, it acts as a gigantic freezer for the Earth. Vast amounts of organic matter, including remnants of dead plants, animals, microbes and viruses, have accumulated and remain frozen underground<5>. Permafrost is also believed to be the Earth’s largest reservoir of carbon and mercury, containing about 1,600 billion tons of carbon — twice the quantity of gas currently in the atmosphere<6>—and about 1,660 billion grammes of mercury — twice the quantity of mercury present in the oceans, the atmosphere and all other land combined<7>.

Second, permafrost is sensitive to several factors, particularly climate change and rising temperatures. This is especially true for Arctic permafrost. With the Arctic region warming twice or thrice as fast as the global average, permafrost is thawing rapidly, often for the first time in thousands of years. Current projections are alarming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body assessing the science related to climate change, 25 percent of permafrost could thaw by 2100 if global warming is limited to well below 2˚C — a figure that could go up to 70 percent if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate<8>. In other words, permafrost is thawing almost overnight<9>.

Lastly, permafrost can thaw in two ways — steadily because of warmer air temperatures, or suddenly and unpredictably when it contains large pockets of ice that melt within it. The latter leads to an abrupt collapse of thawing soil, creating vast craters, lakes, wetlands, landslides, eroding mountains and coastlines<10>, all of which is seen in many permafrost areas today. In the Lena delta in northeast Siberia, about 15 metres of the riverbanks crumble every year due to permafrost erosion<11>.

Why permafrost thaw matters for security

Civilian and military infrastructure in regions with permafrost face a direct threat due to ongoing and potential future thawing. In the Alps, permafrost thaw will likely damage many high mountain infrastructures, including the avalanche control systems that are essential for the safety of locals and tourists<12>. In the Arctic, where several countries have military bases, fire stations have collapsed, roads and houses have become unstable, and some coastal communities have been forced to relocate to safer areas<13>. About 70 percent of all infrastructure in the Arctic is in areas where permafrost thaw is projected to intensify by 2050<14>. The risk is particularly high for oil and gas infrastructure in the region. Up to 45 percent of Russia’s Arctic hydrocarbon extraction fields could be severely damaged by 2050, and several pipelines would be at considerable risk, such as the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline and gas pipelines from the Yamal-Nenets region (northwest Siberia). The risk would also be high for the US’s Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TASP). For example, over 30 percent of ESPO and over 40 percent of TASP pipelines are located in areas where permafrost is projected to thaw by 2050<15>. In 2020, permafrost thaw weakened the foundations of a storage tank in Arctic Russia, causing a major fuel spill<16>, and is affecting US Army installations in Alaska<17>. Researchers predict that the worst is still to come.

Civilian and military infrastructure in regions with permafrost face a direct threat due to ongoing and potential future thawing.

Permafrost-degraded infrastructure could have wider implications, including on energy security. TASP is critical to Alaska’s economy and an important pillar of US energy security; its production could be boosted by large oil deposits recently discovered in other parts of Alaska<18>. Similarly, the Yamal-Nenets and ESPO pipelines are important to the energy security and hydrocarbon industry of Russia, the world’s second-largest gas and oil exporter. In the last decade, ESPO has helped diversify Russia’s oil exports routes against the backdrop of increased tensions with the West<19>. These pipelines matter for international players too — Yamal-Nenets provides most of the gas the European Union (EU) imports from Russia (nearly 40 percent of the EU’s total gas imports in 2019<20>), while ESPO provides a significant amount of crude oil to Asia-Pacific markets, particularly to China, Japan and South Korea.

Thawing permafrost could potentially lead to serious human security challenges. When thawing, permafrost releases its long-buried elements into the environment, which can be dangerous — its organic gas is converted into greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and the extremely potent methane), its mercury can be toxic for humans and animals, and its thousand-year-old viruses can have unknown or forgotten effects<21> <22>. In 2016 in Siberia, thawing permafrost exposed to the surface a 70-year-old reindeer carcass infected with anthrax, killing a child and affecting several other people<23>. As these elements become mobile, once in the environment, permafrost thaw could threaten people in the region and beyond.

These permafrost-induced human security challenges could have broader security implications. More mercury could increase the risk of food insecurity as fish may no longer be safe to eat if carbon emissions continue at current rates<24>, potentially leading to competition over resources among affected populations. As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, the release and spread of unknown viruses could have disastrous economic, social and geopolitical impacts for large parts of the world, all negatively affecting security. By releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (known as the ‘permafrost carbon feedback’<25>) permafrost thaw could significantly accelerate global warming<26>. This could potentially contribute to other climate-related security challenges, such as the opening of an Arctic commercial passage, soon made possible by the melting of the polar ice cap.

By releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (known as the ‘permafrost carbon feedback’) permafrost thaw could significantly accelerate global warming.

What permafrost thaw means for policymaking

With its wide-ranging implications for security, what does the thawing of permafrost mean for policymakers? Three main lessons stand out.

Firstly, permafrost thaw is a critical factor for climate change discussions and targets. Despite some disagreements on the numbers, researchers estimate that permafrost thaw (particularly abrupt thawing, which releases methane) could release a significant amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding up to 0.29˚C by 2100 if global warming continues unabated<27>. Some view it as a potential tipping point that could trigger an uncontrollable vicious cycle for the planet — the more permafrost releases carbon, the more it exacerbates climate change, which in turn would lead to a further release of permafrost carbon, and so on<28>. Even as scientists tried to better understand a number of key complex factors — for instance, how much methane will be released and the role of plants in offsetting the process — the IPCC did not include permafrost carbon emissions into its projections until 2018. As a result, many IPCC forecasts underestimated the extent of global warming, including those used to develop the 2015 Paris Agreement targets, which set to limit global warming to well below 2˚C compared to pre-industrial levels, and if possible to 1.5˚C<29>. Going forward, the climate action plans that all the Paris Agreement countries committed to submit every five years should provide a good opportunity to account for the impact of permafrost thaw, as scientists further improve their understanding of it.

Secondly, permafrost thaw demonstrates that climate change is not only an environmental issue — it can also have real security implications, either directly or as a ‘threat multiplier.’ Similar to conventional security threats like military capacity and nuclear proliferation, or newer ones such as terrorism and cyber-attacks, climate change can help policymakers understand the security situation of countries and regions<30>. In this vein, an increasing number of national governments (including defence ministries) and international organisations have integrated climate change into their security assessments, structures and policies, and some militaries have started to adapt to climate change, from doctrines to equipment and operational training (see Mélissa Levaillant’s essay in this compendium). Other organisations are considering addressing the security implications of climate change, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as part of its forward-looking reflection process (‘NATO2030’)<31><32>. However, discussing climate change in the security-focused UN Security Council is still a controversial matter due to member states’ diverging opinions<33>.

The third lesson derives from the previous one — immediate actions can curb climate change and reduce security challenges. In the case of permafrost, policymakers can reduce global emissions to slow permafrost thaw (mitigation), make current and future infrastructures more resilient to its thaw (adaptation), and work with other affected countries, the private sector and civil society to share best practices and increase climate capacity building (cooperation). In addition to reducing permafrost carbon release, these actions could reduce the security challenges associated with its thaw. If taken rapidly, they could halve the severe costs resulting from this process (up to USD 70 trillion if nothing is done, and about 25 trillion if actions are taken to limit warming to 1.5˚C)<34>. The example of mitigation is a case in point — limiting global warming at 1.5˚C by 2100 (instead of 2˚C) could save 2 million square kilometres of permafrost<35>, protecting many people and infrastructure in the future. Permafrost thaw is thus not an irreversible tipping point for now, as mitigation can slow it down<36>. Yet the challenge is enormous. Achieving this 1.5˚C goal will mean eliminating greenhouse gas emissions completely by 2050<37> or even by 2044, according to studies accounting for the most recent discoveries on permafrost thaw<38>. With 126 countries representing only 51 percent of global greenhouse emissions that had adopted, announced or considered this mid-century target<39>, the December 2020 Climate Ambition Summit revealed that much work remains to be done to achieve this target by 2050 — let alone an earlier deadline.


Particularly sensitive to climate change, permafrost is thawing rapidly in many parts of the world. In addition to environmental consequences, permafrost thaw carries significant and multi-faceted security implications — direct and indirect, ongoing and potential, local and global. It is thus an excellent example illustrating that climate change and security are closely intertwined, and that combating climate change now can also mean reducing current and potential security challenges. Five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the issue of permafrost thaw is likely to gain importance on policymakers’ agenda. Stronger actions will be required to implement the Paris targets, as science makes further progress on permafrost thaw, and as its security repercussions will likely be felt worldwide.

The views expressed in this essay are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the organisation she works for.


<1> UN Environment, Frontiers 2018/2019 – Emerging Issues of Environmental Concerns, Nairobi, United Nations Environment Programme, 2019.

<2> Julia Boike, “Le permafrost, l’autre menace climatique,Le Monde, 14 November 2017.

<3> Stephan Gruber, “Derivation and analysis of a high-resolution estimate of global permafrost zonation,” Cryosphere, 6 (2012): 221–233.

<4> Gruber, “Derivation and analysis of a high-resolution estimate of global permafrost zonation”

<5> Cristina Schädel, “The irreversible emissions of a permafrost ‘tipping point’,World Economic Forum, 18 February 2020.

<6> E. Schuur et al., “Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback,Nature Communications, 520 (2015): 171–179.

<7> K. Schaefer et al., “Permafrost Stores a Globally Significant Amount of Mercury, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 45, issue 3 (2018): 1463-1471.

<8> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, Geneva, IPCC, 2019.

<9> Craig Welch, “Artic permafrost is thawing fast: That affects us all,National Geographic, August 2019.

<10> M. Turetsky et al., “Permafrost collapse is accelerating carbon release, Nature Communications, 569 (2019): 32-34.

<11>Siberia’s permafrost erosion has been worsening for years,” Alfred Wegener Institute, 16 September 2020.

<12> Luigi Jorio, “La disparition du permafrost, une menace locale, régionale et mondiale,Swissinfo, 4 November 2020.

<13> “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate”

<14> J. Hjort et al., “Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century,Nature Communications, 9 (2018): 5147.

<15> Hjort et al., “Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century”

<16>Russian Arctic oil spill pollutes big lake near Norilsk,BBC, 9 June 2020.

<17> US Department of Defense, Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense, Washington DC, US Department of Defense, 2019.

<18> Mike Sommers, “Unleash Alaskan Energy,American Petroleum Institute, 10 June 2019.

<19> Olga Yagova, “As Russia expands Pacific pipeline, a third of oil exports go East,Reuters, 21 November 2019.

<20> British Petroleum, “Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, Natural Gas,Statistical Review of World Energy, 2020.

<21> Schädel, “The irreversible emissions of a permafrost ‘tipping point’”

<22> Jean-Michel Claverie, “CO2 et virus oubliés: le permafrost est une ‘boîte de Pandore’,France Culture, 15 December 2018.

<23> Claverie, “CO2 et virus oubliés”

<24> K. Schaefer et al., “Potential impacts of mercury released from thawing permafrost,Nature Communications, 11, 4650 (2020).

<25> Schuur et al., “Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback”

<26> Boris Biskaborn et al., “Permafrost is warming at a global scale, Nature Communications, 10, 264 (2019).

<27> Turetsky et al., “Permafrost collapse is accelerating carbon release”

<28> “Frontiers 2018/2019 – Emerging Issues of Environmental Concerns

<29> D. Yumashev et al., “Climate policy implications of nonlinear decline of Arctic land permafrost and other cryosphere elements,Nature Communications 10, 1900 (2019).

<30> Caitlin Werrell and Francisco Femia, The Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent. A climate security governance framework for the 21st century (Washington DC: The Center for Climate and Security, 2019).

<31>Secretary General: NATO must help to curb climate change,NATO, 28 September 2020.

<32>Online press conference – meetings of NATO Ministers of Defence,NATO, 17 February 2021.

<33>Climate Change recognised as ‘threat multiplier’, UN Security Council Debates its impact on peace,UN News, 25 January 2019.

<34> Yamuchev et al., “Climate policy implications of nonlinear decline of Arctic land permafrost and other cryosphere elements”

<35> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, Geneva, IPCC, 2018.

<36> Schädel, “The irreversible emissions of a permafrost ‘tipping point’”

<37> “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”

<38> Welch, “Arctic permafrost is thawing fast”

<39> United Nations Environment Programme, Emissions Gap Report 2020, Nairobi, UNEP, 2020.

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Sophie Briquetti

Sophie Briquetti

Sophie Briquetti works as a political officer on partnerships and cooperation with the International Staff of NATO Headquarters in Brussels. She also has experience working ...

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