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Publication Date
18 January 2024

Most Earth System Models are Missing Key Piece of Future Climate Puzzle

Permafrost Pathways experts weigh in on the challenges of permafrost modeling.
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Permafrost thaw in and around the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Torre Jorgenson.

Emissions from thawing permafrost represent one of the largest uncertainties in future climate projections, yet they are missing or underrepresented in most of the earth system models (ESMs) used to inform global climate targets and carbon budgets. A team of modeling experts describe the grand challenge of more accurately representing permafrost thaw dynamics in ESMs, including resources needed and the processes—abrupt thaw, snow physics, surface hydrology, and wildfire among them—that should be included. 


Only two of the 11 ESMs used to inform the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report include permafrost emissions, and those that do rely on an over-simplified approximation of gradual thaw, missing the dynamic ways that permafrost is changing as the Arctic warms up to four times faster than the rest of Earth. International climate targets, carbon budgets, and other policy outcomes informed by the IPCC may, therefore, be based on incomplete information. Failing to accurately represent permafrost in ESMs threatens to hamper efforts to meet climate goals and to stay below agreed-upon temperature targets.


Most ESMs are missing representation of thawing permafrost, a key piece of the future climate puzzle. An international team of researchers contend that the three-year grant cycles and focus on novel science questions that characterize much major grant-based funding have contributed to system-wide under-resourcing of ESMs and the ability of these modeling teams to train up developers or to complete important model development steps before teams turn over. Targeted funding on the order of multiple millions of dollars per ESM—and highly skilled software developers and programmers—can help speed the model improvement that’s underway to better capture the global implications of permafrost thaw. Read more about this research

Point of Contact
Kate Petersen
Woodwell Climate Research Center
Funding Program Area(s)
Additional Resources:
Earth system models must include permafrost carbon processes
Schädel, Christina, Brendan M. Rogers, David M. Lawrence, Charles D. Koven, Victor Brovkin, Eleanor J. Burke, Hélène Genet, et al. 2024. “Earth System Models Must Include Permafrost Carbon Processes”. Nature Climate Change. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. doi:10.1038/s41558-023-01909-9.