Swiss create global permafrost map

A Zurich researcher has put together the first high definition global map of permafrost, highlighting sensitive zones where climate change could have a major impact.

This content was published on February 20, 2012 - 16:21

Alpine countries like Switzerland have already begun to experience some of the problems related to thawing permafrost, which can destabilise cable-car and electric pylons and lead to rock falls.

If temperatures continue to rise, these issues will become more common, warns glaciologist Stephan Gruber, who devised the new map. 

Permafrost is rock or soil whose temperature has been below zero for at least two years. As long as it remains frozen it is as solid as rock, but becomes highly unstable if melts.

“As a result of climate change, areas with permafrost have great potential for unpleasant surprises,” Gruber said in a press briefing. “That is why it is all the more important for politicians and the public to be aware of the problem of thawing permafrost.”

He believes that thawing will have far-reaching ramifications for populated areas, infrastructure and ecosystems.

The new map could be a major step forward because permafrost occurs under the surface and cannot be mapped directly.

The Zurich map, with a resolution of around one kilometre, shows that approximately one sixth of the planet’s land surface could be covered with permafrost, often distributed in piecemeal fashion. Using air temperature and altitude data, it indicates the probability of finding permafrost.

The high-resolution images can be viewed with Google Earth.

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