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Heidi Sevestre | Permafrost Tipping Points \ Fighting For 1.5 Degrees
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Heidi Sevestre | Arctic Permafrost threshold

Nick Breeze

Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

In this episode of Shaping The Future I am speaking with Glaciologist, Dr Heidi Sevestre, about the changing state of the Arctic, the outlook for the Russian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, of which Heidi herself is an advisor, and how thawing permafrost could be past the threshold of irreversibility.

Heidi combines the spirit of the modern polar explorer with the weight of important scientific work. She is also an excellent communicator and will be speaking at the ChangeNow climate summit later this month in the company of Sir David Attenborough and world-renowned scientist, Johan Rockström, who will be premiering their new documentary, Breaking Boundaries, as part of the virtual summit.

Heidi also gives her perspective on why we literally must fight hard to limit global average warming to 1.5ºC, giving a rare insight into how someone who wanted to be a glaciologist from a very young age actually feels about the rate of loss of the worlds glaciers.

Thank you for listening to Shaping The Future – please subscribe and share the podcast as we have many more episodes on the way exploring the change needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

Transcript: Dr Heidi Sevestre | Fight Hard for 1.5ºC

Nick Breeze (NB): Heidi, it is good to speak to you. Thanks very much for taking the time. I can see you have been working up in the Arctic recently. Can you tell us what you have been working on?

Heidi Sevestre (HS): Yes, absolutely. I am just back from a month expedition on the archipelago of Svalbard. Our goal was to do an expedition which is more different that the classical expeditions. 

We wanted to show that we can reduce our carbon footprint, hence we spent a month skiing, pulling all our research equipment behind us, investigating the deposition of black carbon on snow and ice on the Archipelago of Svalbard.

It definitely was really hard work. We really underestimated how hard it was going to be to not only survive but on top of that actually do science along the way. What we experienced was pretty disturbing.

We decided to do the expedition during the month of April, which is typically the month in which you have the best weather in Svalbard. It tends tone very stable, cold and good weather. The beginning of the expedition was plagued by the worst storms I have ever had on Svalbard. 

I have been going to Svalbard for the past 13 years. It is a place I know very well. Svalbard is also the epicentre for climate change. It is currently the place on Earth that is warming the fastest. 6-7 times faster than the rest of the world. Everything is becoming really disturbed in Svalbard, in including the weather.

Therefor at the beginning in Svaldbard we just had one storm after another after another after another. We couldn’t see an end to it but eventually the weather improved and we could finish the expedition safely.

NB: You just touched on this point of the Arctic warming much faster than everywhere else. We see on social media and charts and so on but you are seeing it first hand. From your perspective, what does this accelerating heat mean for us, in a more global context?

HS: That is a very good point. For most people the Arctic seems so remote, so far away from their daily preoccupations but actually, everything about the Arctic has a direct influence on our daily lives. We may not think about it but it is true.

For example, as the Arctic is melting, more and more every year, this increasing sea levels globally. We are also seeing that the Arctic is becoming more accessible therefor there are these shipping routes which are opening up. The access to fossil fuel reserves is also becoming easier and this creates both opportunities and risks globally.

Also, the last point which is also extremely important I believe, is that as the Arctic is becoming warmer and warmer every year, this is having a direct impact of emissions of greenhouse gases. So we are seeing these feedbacks. They are kicking in, these positive feedbacks, they are amplifying the emissions of greenhouse gases. 

For example, we can look at permafrost. As permafrost is thawing more and more, permafrost itself can emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases and this is having an impact globally. So everything that is happening to the Arctic is having an impact globally.

NB: The permafrost sounds like a really tricky issue because to reverse its you would have to reverse the whole climate trend and that is not happening in the short-term, that is for sure. What are your thoughts on that?

HS: I think this is a very important point because we are getting closer and closer to irreversible dynamics. Especially when we look at the cryosphere. So all these frozen things on Earth, and permafrost is one of them, we are approaching thresholds of irreversibility that eventually will become unstoppable. Permafrost is definitely one of the trickiest ones of all. 

Permafrost is this sleeping giant where if permafrost starts to thaw it will start to emit greenhouse gases which will contribute to the warming which will contribute to the thawing of the permafrost. It is hard to know if it is already irreversible or not, whether we have already crossed this threshold but things are definitely not looking good.

What we do know is that permafrost, for example, if we go beyond 2ºC, if we go into overshoot, if we go beyond the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement, permafrost will emit just enough greenhouse gas concentrations as entire countries.

So this will become a really real problem. It already is a very real problem but it will become increasingly important to tackle emissions from permafrost. Some people argue that because of permafrost, we will have to use other strategies to remove some of these emissions from the atmosphere.

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Luckily we have natural systems that have been doing this very well but are starting to struggle and some other people believe that perhaps using technologies to remove some of this carbon from the atmosphere could also help. 

I am one of those who really argues for trying to reduce emissions from the source but eventually we will have to go into negative emissions, so using CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) technologies because permafrost will be become such an important player in the global carbon budget.

NB: One big change that is about to happen in the Arctic is that Russia is about to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. They say they are prioritising the inhabitants of the Arctic Circle, which is fantastic. What is on your checklist as a polcy person who is working with the Arctic Council. What is on your checklist for what must be done?

HS: I think this is a very exciting time to see that Russia is following the Icelandic chairmanship of the Arctic Council. It was fantastic to hear a couple of days ago Lavrov saying they would prioritise the people who inhabit the Arctic. 

We often forget the fact that, as opposed to Antarctica, the Arctic is inhabited. People have been there for more than 10’s of thousands of years. The people there are facing some of the most profound changes that are going on Earth at the moment, as a result of our emissions.

One thing that is very important to me, as a glaciologist and as someone who tries to make sure that the science is being understood by policymakers and by the general public is that we fully implement the Paris Agreement. It is simple as that.

When we look at glaciers, sea ice, ice sheets, permafrost, when we look at the cryosphere, it has what we call a non-linear response to climate change. That means that if were go above certain temperature thresholds, especially if we go beyond 1.5ºC, we will start triggering these irreversible dynamics.

For example, the destabilisation of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, the destabilisation of mountain glaciers, and also one important point is ocean acidification which is becoming major in the polar regions.

These dynamics, once we go beyond 1.5ºC they are almost impossible to stop. We can slow these down but we can never reverse these kind of dynamics. One solution to avoid these widespread changes is definitely to implement the Paris Agreement and that means doing whatever we can to keep the world temperatures below 1.5ºC.

NB: We definitely don’t want any of those things to happen and yet Potsdam Institute (PIK) released a paper this week saying there are now very few pathways to 1.5ºC, so drastic action has to happen. Especially this year which is a really critical time. 

You touched on the opening up of fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic because of melting and Russia sells carbon sells fossil fuels. We have to have sympathy for countries that sell fossil fuels because we are asking them to give them up and that is their GDP.

Do you see a level of complexity here when we ask countries to transfer away from fossil fuels?

HS: Absolutely, there is a huge dilemma here. We do know that the warming of the Arctic is creating both huge opportunities for certain countries and also this comes with a huge amount of risk.

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Today if there was an oil spill in the Arctic we are not able to clean it up. That is it. It is as simple as that. As we are exploiting fossil fuel reserves further and further north, this is becoming a massive problem.

When we look at an oil spill in relation to sea ice, what we see is that the oil becomes sandwiched between layers of sea ice. How do you clean this up? Sea Ice is constantly moving around the Arctic. An oil spill in one place can move all around the Arctic. 

Therefor the notion of governance and risk assessment is absolutely major in the Arctic now. As a scientists I am not the one who is supposed to say what we can or cannot do, I can only talk about the risks. So, I am really curious to see what the Arctic will look like in ten or twenty years. Things are changing so rapidly creating a huge amount of opportunities of things that come with huge amounts of risk.

NB: Earlier on I heard you use a word that I hear more and more frequently which is overshoot. It is just a reality basically that we are in this situation where we might not do enough in time and in this, what I would call a worst case scenario, there are scientists saying we should research interventions like geoengineering. 

One reason that is cited is to stop or even reverse Arctic heating. What are your thoughts on this subject?

HS: My opinion, and this is only my opinion, is that I would rather see all these incredibly bright people really thinking about how can we reduce our emissions at the source. How can we be less dependent on fossil fuels?

Instead of thinking about these so-called solutions that would, for example, reduce solar input on to a region like the Arctic that could have massive consequences. The climate, as you know, is an extremely complex system. If we start disturbing a little bit of it, the consequences could be far reaching and disturbing places where it was not meant to have an impact on.

At the moment the situation is so extremely urgent that we do know that the best and most efficient solution is really to reduce emissions at the source but then I do agree we will have to look into these geoengineering solutions because of some natural feedbacks such as the thawing of permafrost.

There is a huge debate in the scientific community, as you know, and I just wish we could put more energy into raising ambition, into pushing for more actions to simple reduce emissions at the very source.

NB: What has come up a lot in recent interviews is that we don’t talk enough about how we feel about these dramatic changes in the climate system. You wanted to be a glaciologist since a young age and now glaciers are shrinking the world over. How does it make you feel as a human?

HS: Yes, that is a good point. As a scientist you are never supposed to talk about emotions or how you feel. This should never influence your science and rightly so but when I see some of the glaciers that I know like the back of my hand simply disappearing, it is absolutely heartbreaking.

And then you have 2 options. You either just give up and accept everything that is happening or you decide to fight hard and try and make sure that these glaciers are here for my children and their children.

So I think it is terrible and the situation is really catastrophic and I think people should really understand that glaciers are melting all over the world and some of the massive ice sheets like Greenland and the Antarctic Ice Sheet are really reacting rapidly to manmade emissions.

So the future of ice sheets will definitely impact our future. The two are really tightly related. So we absolutely should do everything we can to preserve these glaciers because they can influence sea level rise so much and our water resources so much. So let’s do our utmost to try to preserve the cryosphere so much.

NB: It is a big year for climate with COP26 putting it back on the mainstream media agenda. If you could put you main concern at the top of the policy agenda, what would it be?

HS: Yeah, I wish I had this power, this magic wand to make such a big difference. It would really be to help raise ambition and make sure countries understand the importance of avoiding overshoot as much as possible. So let’s keep these temperatures below 1.5ºC!


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