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Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

Learn what permafrost is, its importance to the global climate, and how we can limit the harmful impacts of permafrost thaw.

378 enrolled on this course

Waterlogged tundra in the foreground, community buildings in the background. The water sits in large pools on the flat land.

Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

378 enrolled on this course

  • 4 weeks

  • 2 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Intermediate level

Find out more about how to join this course

  • Duration

    4 weeks
  • Weekly study

    2 hours
  • 100% online

    How it works
  • Unlimited subscription

    $244.99 for one whole yearLearn more

Develop your understanding of permafrost

Currently, the Arctic is warming at more than three times the global rate. This rapid warming poses a serious threat not only to the people who live on this frozen ground, but also to our global climate.

On this four-week course, you’ll explore how permafrost – soil that stays continually frozen year-round – is now thawing in the Northern hemisphere due to rising Arctic temperatures.

You’ll increase your understanding of how this thawing land releases greenhouse gases that accelerate the warming process, posing major threats to the climate.

Discover the impacts of permafrost thaw on Arctic people, land, and infrastructure

You’ll learn about the implications of permafrost thaw for Arctic residents, ecosystems, land, and infrastructure.

Next, you’ll understand how to develop policy responses and support Indigenous-led adaptation frameworks that address permafrost thaw and respond equitably to this urgent climate hazard.

Explore how feedback loops impact the global climate

With an understanding of how permafrost thaw affects Northern communities, you’ll then delve into how permafrost carbon feedback loops impact the global climate.

This knowledge will help you justify why emissions from permafrost thaw should be included in global climate targets.

Learn from the experts at Woodwell Climate Center

Throughout the course, you’ll be guided by the specialists at Woodwell Climate Research Center, who work with a worldwide network of partners to help tackle climate change.

With their expertise, you’ll finish the course with the knowledge and skills to identify the threats of thawing permafrost, and how we can mitigate harm.

Download video: standard or HD

Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsClimate change, it’s clear what the challenge is. Carbon from human emissions is building up in the atmosphere and heating our planet. But if we can limit our emissions enough, the worst case can be averted.

Skip to 0 minutes and 19 seconds The 2015 Paris Agreement was a giant step forward. 195 countries set goals for limiting carbon emissions and promised to report on their progress. But even if they’re completely achieved, the targets set so far will not get the job done, not by a long shot. To begin with, those targets are only a start on the deeper cuts needed. Compounding the problem, the climate models used to estimate the required reductions in the Paris Agreement left out a critical factor. A massive reservoir holds more carbon than there is in all the known fossil fuel stores on earth, twice as much carbon as there is in our atmosphere. Three times as much as there is in all of our forests.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds And this reservoir is not secure. It is emitting carbon into the atmosphere at an ever increasing rate. What is it? Permafrost. Global warming is causing this frozen Arctic soil to thaw releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Tundra fires accelerate the thaw and make the problem even worse. The science on permafrost carbon was not yet well enough understood. So leaders in Paris could not take this critical factor into their planning. The result, current emissions targets will not meet the challenge.


  • Week 1

    Introduction to permafrost

    • Welcome to the course

      We’ll go over how the course works, preview the topics we’ll cover, and hear from you about your current knowledge about permafrost.

    • Permafrost: The basics

      We’ll cover the basics of what and where permafrost is, and where it’s predicted to be in the future.

    • Why is permafrost thawing?

      We’ll cover factors contributing to permafrost thaw.

    • Concluding Week 1

      We’ll recap what we learned this week and preview next week’s topics.

  • Week 2

    Impacts on people and the environment

    • Welcome to Week 2

      Dr. Sue Natali will give us a brief preview of what we’ll be learning about this week. Then, we’ll hear from someone on the front lines of the impacts of permafrost thaw, and consider how many people are at risk.

    • Landscape and ecosystem impacts

      We’ll cover both slow-onset and abrupt environmental changes related to permafrost thaw, then consider how these changes may impact northern communities.

    • Threats to people and infrastructure: Alaska case study

      We’ll cover the risks permafrost thaw poses to Indigenous communities, infrastructure, and human health in Alaska.

    • Concluding Week 2

      We’ll recap what we learned this week, preview next week’s topics, and check in with your fellow learners now that we’re halfway through the course.

  • Week 3

    Permafrost and global climate

    • Welcome to Week 3

      We’ll cover what makes up the carbon component of permafrost and ask how much carbon you think is stored in permafrost right now.

    • Global climate consequences

      We’ll cover how a warming climate causes permafrost to release carbon, how we know this is happening, and the scale of those carbon emissions. Then, you’ll compare your key takeaways from this activity with your peers.

    • Feedback loops

      We’ll cover the process of permafrost carbon feedback loops, whether they can be reversed, and what tipping points are. Then, you’ll share your thoughts on tipping points with your fellow learners.

    • Concluding Week 3

      We’ll recap what we learned this week and preview next week’s topics. Then, we’ll hear what Brendan and Sue think about tipping points and permafrost thaw, and discuss communicating about permafrost.

  • Week 4

    Mitigation and adaptation policy

    • Welcome to Week 4

      We’ll touch on where permafrost carbon is or isn’t being accounted for, as a preview to the rest of this week.

    • Global climate goals

      We’ll cover why permafrost thaw is missing from global climate models and what that means for our climate targets. Then, you’ll make your case for why we should be accounting for permafrost thaw.

    • Policy responses

      We’ll hear from Dr. Natali and Dr. Rogers on where they think we should start to address permafrost thaw. Then, we’ll explore a few of the possible avenues to make change.

    • Concluding Week 4

      We’ll recap what we learned this week and hear from you about what role you can play in addressing permafrost thaw.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explain what permafrost is and why it is thawing
  • Describe the impacts of permafrost thaw on northern lands, ecosystems, people, and infrastructure
  • Explain how permafrost carbon feedback loops impact global climate
  • Justify why emissions from permafrost thaw should be included in global climate targets
  • Engage in meaningful discussions about how to develop policy responses and support Indigenous-led adaptation frameworks that address permafrost thaw

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone with a general awareness of human-caused climate change.

It will also be of interest to policymakers, policy influencers, and advocates wanting to learn more about permafrost thaw.

Who will you learn with?

Earth System scientist at Woodwell determined to better monitor and predict the quickly changing Arctic and its impacts on global climate. I am also deputy lead of the Permafrost Pathways project.

Woodwell Arctic Program director and Senior Scientist researching the effects of permafrost and fire on carbon storage and release, and on global climate. I also lead the Permafrost Pathways project.

Who developed the course?

Woodwell Climate Research Center

Woodwell Climate Research Center is dedicated to climate science pursued in partnership with stakeholders and decision makers to produce maximum societal benefit.

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Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Subscribe & save

$244.99 for one whole year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 21 Mar 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

Sale price available until 4 March 2024 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply.

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

Sale price available until 4 March 2024 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply.

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