National Geographic News
A photo of trees falling over due to permafrost melting.

According to scientists, melting ground is to blame for tilting spruce trees.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GALEN ROWELL, CORBIS

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published April 17, 2014

Sarah James, an Alaska Native elder, says global warming is radically changing her homeland. Even the forests no longer grow straight. Melting ground has caused trees to tilt or fall.

"Because permafrost melts, it causes a lot of erosion," says James, who lives in Arctic Village, a small Native American village in northeastern Alaska. "A lot of trees can't stand up straight. If the erosion gets worse, everything goes with it."

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. But climate change has caused much of that ground to melt at an unprecedented rate. The ground buckles and sinks, causing trees to list at extreme angles.

Sometimes the trees survive the stress and continue growing, uprighting themselves to vertical. Other times they collapse or drown from rising water tables as subterranean ice melts. Because such trees seem to stagger across the landscape, people often call them "drunken trees."

Although trees can lean or curve for a number of reasons, including disturbance of soil caused by man-made excavations or landslides, the melting permafrost is making leaning trees more prevalent.

It's not just trees. Slumping land caused by melting permafrost also cracks pavement, breaks pipelines, and opens holes, causing expensive damage to houses and roads. "We have whole families who have had to move because their houses are not safe anymore," says James.

Wildlife has been affected by the shifting landscape as well. James has seen declines in spawning fish, nesting birds, and small mammals.

A photo of trees falling over due to permafrost melting.
Fallen trees after the permafrost melted in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2004.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ASHLEY COOPER, CORBIS

The Science of Drunken Trees

Torre Jorgenson, a scientist in Fairbanks, Alaska, who studies permafrost, says melting of ice crystals below the ground can cause slumps as large as 10 meters (33 feet). That can "swallow a whole house," says Jorgensen, who heads Alaska Ecoscience, which does research for government agencies.

Drunken trees are becoming most prevalent in lowland arboreal forests across Alaska, Canada, and northern Eurasia, says Jorgenson. On steeper slopes, meltwater usually runs downhill quickly, which causes less disturbance on the surface. Birch and black spruce—with their shallow root systems—are the species most likely to lean.

Some climate models have predicted that most permafrost could melt by the end of the century. Jorgenson thinks it will take longer, since soil layers above the frozen ground are good insulators. But the area north of Fairbanks is predicted to warm by four to six degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

"In the last hundred years we've increased about 1.5 degrees Celsius, so that's going to be a huge sledgehammer coming down," says Jorgenson.

In that case, there are likely to be more drunken trees. Right now, around 7 to 8 percent of the land in the middle boreal zone in Alaska is showing some signs of drunken trees or other melting-related impacts, says Jorgenson.

With the impacts hitting home, the road that winds near his house has to be rebuilt every few years because of damage caused by slumping. This year, engineers are adding insulation to try to reduce the impact of the melting, but that's expensive. (See "World Not Ready for Climate Change.")

A photo of trees falling over due to melting permafrost.
This boreal pond formed after the permafrost melted in the Alaska Range.
PHOTOGRAPH BY 167/ MICHAEL S. QUINTON/ OCEAN, CORBIS

What's a "Thermokarst"?

Drunken, or "collapsed" trees, are one of the more visible signs of change in the north. Ground that collapses as a result of melting permafrost has a technical name: thermokarst. (Thermo means heat, and karst refers to collapse.)

In addition to collapsed trees, slumping land often leads to the formation of new thermokarst lakes, if enough meltwater collects in a depression. In that case, drunken trees are often found ringing the water.

"The melting permafrost as a process in the region is very, very serious," says Tero Mustonen, who leads the Snowchange Cooperative, a nonprofit organization in Finland. A warming north has "profound consequences for both the global system and the local human societies," he says, adding that the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from thawed ground is a particular worry.

Other impacts include disruption to reindeer migrations, changes in river courses, and stress on fisheries. (See "7 Species Hit Hard by Climate Change.")

Downstream Effects

On the upside, drunken trees could benefit some Native communities, says Jon Rosales, a professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. More downed trees could mean more driftwood—an important source of fuel and building material for these communities—flowing into rivers and toward the coast.

"Climate change, global warming, is real here in the Arctic," Sarah James, the elder, concludes. "It seems like when I go other places they're not worried about it, but one way or another it's going to get there."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

73 comments
JAMES REYNOLDS
JAMES REYNOLDS

with all this global warming & all the signs that it IS real, the "experts" even  have more proof than they need to prove it's really happening, YET, 80% of the politicians say it's all just a hoax; it's not really happening; "...there's no way that Alaska will ever melt...."; and the occupants/residents of the River Denial keep growing day by day....


I hate to see it happen, but I think the ONLY way the politicians are going to believe in Global Warming, is when it smacks them in the face like a brick going through a plate glass window.


GOD help us all if/when that happens.

Paul Moulton
Paul Moulton

We know that the arctic is going to experience the most warming and in your honest opinion, is that a bad thing?  The reason why it only supports minimal life is because it is cold. 


So yes, it will change, but it will change for the better.

Milo Fabian
Milo Fabian

Wake up, people! Climate change is real and happening now, regardless of political rhetoric.  

Tina Barberis
Tina Barberis

We live on this planet and pollute while our eyes are wide open. We are the dominate species they say, but I beg to differ.    

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I guess that trying to explain it to some people is just futile. They have already made up their minds and will not consider anything that anyone says to the contrary. However, Everyone else gets the big picture. It is here and. There is no more denying it. Now our only question is What are we going to do about it. The signs are every where, Not just in the Alaskan permafrost. The little guy has very little power to do anything, While the people that have the ability to affect a response to it are to busy arguing about it. When will it actually start being fixed?!

Amber Lee
Amber Lee

The planet will warm and cool and continuously repair itself as it has always done. It will either freeze or heat up to repair whatever is hurting it. This is what it has always done, what it always will. Science is fascinating this planet is amazing and people are fools to think they can just ignore it's warning signs .

Donna Carlson
Donna Carlson

The article was interesting, but after reading a dozen or so of the comments, I began to realize that we are in much more danger from our selves.  Lemmings running into the sea and that sort of parallel. 

craig hill
craig hill

Saying massive methane release is a particular worry is like saying the poisons in the reservoir are a particular worry, or the radioactivity suffusing the Pacific is a particular worry, or the car wreck that cut you in half is a particular worry.

Patricia Goldsmith
Patricia Goldsmith

We are in big trouble if the permafrost continues to melt.  There's a lot of methane stored there, and melting could initiate a positive feedback loop.  If we let it go that far, we are cooked.  Literally.

Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

Can anyone explain to me how trees can grow in permanently frozen ground in the first place? All these pics show are overmature Black Spruce stands.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Can't we all just look the other way as Republicans do so very  well?  Why all this concern about the planet we live upon?  We can always go somewhere else whenever we want-----------

JAMES REYNOLDS
JAMES REYNOLDS

@Paul Moulton

Better for WHO?  you? the politicians who claim that there is no such thing as global warming?  The  flora? fauna?

Better for who?

Ria Halcomb
Ria Halcomb

@Paul Moulton Define better? Better because more people can move there? Or better because the life that has adapted to being there now needs to migrate further north?
Why not have humans curtail their behaviors that are damaging these eco-systems?

Jean-Marc Cloutier Cloutier
Jean-Marc Cloutier Cloutier

@Dwayne LaGrou  If our climate catastrophists want to twiddle the dials and stop climate change, they need to play God and change radiation in the galaxy, the Sun, the Earth's orbit, tidal cycles and plate tectonics. Once they have mastered volcanoes, then we can let them loose on climate change.

Ria Halcomb
Ria Halcomb

@Amber Lee Ah yes but, will the most destructive inhabitant survive the repair process?

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

When people worry about a problem they are more likely to affect a positive response to it and help resolve the problem. Ignoring it and thinking it will go away or that it won't affect you is very short sighted!

Ria Halcomb
Ria Halcomb

@Paul Kuster The truth is actually the reverse of what Chris Crawford posted. The very thin top layer of soil thaws each year. As debris falls & decomposes it provides nutrients to the tree. Since the permafrost is subterranean when it thaws the support under the tree collapses & the tree will tilt. So the trees are growing more on top of the permanently frozen ground rather than in it.

http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/cpc/CPC2-132.pdf

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@Paul Kuster  The permafrost does not extend that far down. The tree's roots can penetrate below the permafrost, providing it with nutrients.

Margie Stinson
Margie Stinson

@William Burrows  Climate change has ALWAYS been around and the world survives it in its own way.  I don't think a message from your god has anything to do with it.

john davies
john davies

@William Burrows

You say “Climate change is a huge problem.” But as a man of God you should know only God can change climate.

You obviously have not completed the path to the ‘Knowledge’ as you are still worshiping at the altar of the false prophet Gore & allowed yourself to become distracted & obsessed.

As it clearly states in your link -

“You practice saying “Rahn” or “Na Rahn,” and you keep focused on these sounds which you do not understand, and you begin to pass through all of these different kinds of obsessions, persuasions and distractions because you are staying with that.”

God is working in mysterious ways to achieve his promise that “The meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), so all higher life forms must be destroyed leaving only the chosen ones (the microbes, bacteria, viruses ).

craig hill
craig hill

@Paul A'Barge  You are completely confused because you don't understand the terminology. Fascist leftist is like saying pacifist militant. Of course because you are an extreme conservative, you don't care, you just lie, the #1 tool in the conservative quiver, to confuse other equally dim people to agree your oxymoron is real. 

Les Mclean
Les Mclean

@Paul A'Barge  Typical  for an American to turn a global problem into a political cess pit.  So the "Lefties"  (whoever they are)  have control of British, German, Australian,  - or world-wide scientists??  REALLY????  This is NOT an American problem.  Jeesh, everything has to be about you. 


rya yeah
rya yeah

@Paul A'Barge do you really think that the climate won't change while we're here?  that's just plain silly!  everything changes all the time.  change is the only constant.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

If you honestly believe that Global Warming is a hoax, Then you are seriously misinformed. There is enough data from more sources than just what you may call "leftists" or "Fascist" sources. The proof has come from a wide collection of sources, Not one single all knowing source. After all, It's not USA Warming or European Warming, It's GLOBAL! It is affecting the poles, Ocean temperatures and Ocean acidity, The "Drought" in the US Western states, The increase in Hurricanes and other tropical storms. And the increase in Midwest Tornadoes. I don't think that the weather has any right or left wing connections. It's a REALITY that is HAPPENING to everyone in one way or another. I personally live in Michigan where we just broke the all time snowiest winter in recorded history, And the Great Lakes had one of the most frozen over water in history also. So there is so much happening right under our noses that you would have to be living under ground to not notice it. Wake up my friend, someone has been feeding you a line of false information.

Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  Just  so you know, I'm a Forestry grad and have spent a lot of time in the Boreal forest. I suggest you don't embarrass yourself further. What is it about the term "permafrost" do you not understand?

William Burrows
William Burrows

@N A As the climate gets more chaotic, crop loss will be getting more common. Look at commodity coffee this year, for a sign of things to come. And isn't the synchronization between crops needing water with the rainfall patterns getting out of whack already?

Barbara K.
Barbara K.

@KENNETH LANE @Paul A'Barge And Insults are the reason why NOTHING is achieved.

I partly believe in man made Global Warming, due to population and consumption, but I also believe ALOT of what is going on with the earth is natural recycling. As stated earlier, and it is true, the Earth has been warming and cooling for Hundreds of years.

However when we can, and we should do all in our power to help out Mother Nature. Waste little, recycle, exercise, public transportation or car pooling, eat to feed the body, NOT FEED the body. Food shortage, and destroying this planet will be because of our own gluttony and greed.

John Simpson
John Simpson

@Dwayne LaGrou When Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" was released,he said we had 10 years left before the world turned into a frying pan.In 1988 Ted Danson said we only had 10 years to save the oceans from global warming.The problem with all this "Chicken Little" crap is that people actually believe it.Global warming is not man made as the earth has been warming an cooling for hundreds of millions of years.Meteorologists cannot forecast the weather more than 5 days ahead and be sure of their predictions,so why should we believe they have this right?

Ria Halcomb
Ria Halcomb

@Paul Kuster Yes the permafrost still existed during the 94 degree highs in 1991. Some permafrost is believed to be leftovers from a prior ice age or a postglacial relic and arises when the surface cover sufficiently insulates the soil against summer heat.



Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@William Diedrich @Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  Mr. Diedrich, do any trees grow in areas with permafrost that extends 1000 feet down? My understanding is that the boreal forest does extend partly into permafrost areas, but only as far north as permitted by shallow permafrost. Thus, where there's deep permafrost, there are no trees. The "drunken" trees exist in the narrow thawing zone between deep permafrost and no permafrost.


It seems that we have some problems defining what we're talking about. The far northern forest, where the trees are stunted, isn't suffering much from the drunken tree effect, because there's not as much melting and the trees are too short.


Is my understanding incorrect? Do we have a clear terminology for the various zones between the full-fledged boreal forest and the open tundra?

William Diedrich
William Diedrich

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  Chris, I've often appreciated your incisive and humorous comments on climate change dynamics. However, you are incorrect on the trees/permafrost interaction. In the northern latitudes, the permafrost often extends more than a 1000 feet deep. On top of this is the "active layer", which melts and freezes with the seasons. Trees don't do well on top of permafrost - they don't have much soil (or depth of soil) to work with (hence the nickname for the far northern forest "the land of little sticks"). The trees' roots typically only go to a depth of 1 or 2 feet. The problem is that the active layer's depth is increasing with the warming North. As the top of the permafrost layer melts, and the active layer gets thicker, you get this incredibly weak and mushy top layer. It's not just trees that are tilting - houses, roads, everything that depends on that firm underlying layer of permafrost gets messed up.

Avery Harden
Avery Harden

@Paul Kuster @Chris Crawford  


Wonder if this is relevant.  Thousand year old pine trees appear to grow out of rocks in the Chinese Yellow Mountains.  Some said the trees get some... most... sustenance from the air and just use the rocks to hang on.  I'm sure there is more to it than what we are hearing here so far.  

Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  You know, just for the fun of it , I looked up the weather records for Fairbanks AK. Guess what. For 5 months of the year, summer I'll guess, the average low doesn't get below the freezing point. That's the average low!  

The record high was 94 degrees in 1991. Think there was any permafrost around then or at any other time in the temperature record? 

And you want to lecture me on simple logic........

Keep posting CC , you're providing a lot of us with some pretty good laughs.

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@Paul Kuster @Chris Crawford  You seem determined to ignore the evidence presented in the photographs. Did you read this caption:


"Fallen trees after the permafrost melted in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2004."


I won't walk you through the simple logic here. The photographs clearly show that trees grew while there was permafrost, then the permafrost melted, and the trees fell down. 

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@David Opperman @Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  He didn't say that he's a grad student, he said that he's a grad. I did not say that the permafrost melts every year, I said that the upper surface of the permafrost melts every year. You can take any side you want, but perhaps you should consider what your eyes tell you from the photograph in the article: the upper surface of that environment is NOT frozen.

Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  Did you even read the article? How deep then does the summer melt have to be for the trees to be established and to attain the heights shown in those pictures? 

That pic you refer to is explained by the article as what occurs after the permafrost melts. Are you suggesting that the trees on the island grew when the ground was frozen? The one picture showed a spruce (likely Black Spruce) bog where the site is very wet and the soils are shallow. Because of the shallow soils wind, yes wind likely caused the leaning or the blowdown due to the shallow root system at a time when the ground was thawed. Guess what - It's no longer called permafrost then and there never was any permafrost or those trees, which are likely over a hundred years old would never have grown in permanently frozen ground. Tree root systems , astonishingly take up liquid water not solid water. But you knew that, right?

David Opperman
David Opperman

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  You said that permafrost melts every year. Your argument is flawed. To be considered permafrost, the ground must be at a frozen temperature for two or more years. I'm siding with the grad student who specializes in this field.

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@Paul Kuster Perhaps you should re-read my post:

"OK, so you believe that permafrost extends all the way to the center of the earth. Fine with me."

Where in this does it say that *I* believe that permafrost extends all the way to the center of the earth?


You wonder how a seedling tree can drill through 3 feet of permafrost. Perhaps you are not aware of this, but the upper surface of permafrost melts in the summer, permitting a variety of plant species to establish themselves. Did you notice the liquid water and grasses in the photo?


Finally, let me point out something truly astonishing: the trees are there. They obviously are growing, and their roots obviously penetrate well into the permafrost; otherwise, they wouldn't lean when it melts, would they?


Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

@Chris Crawford @Paul Kuster  Please Chris- Tell me how a seedling tree can drill through even 3 feet of permafrost to get to where it's no longer frozen. Also, if you knew anything about the Boreal region , you'd know that for the most part soils are pretty shallow, before you hit the Cdn Shield rock, or mountain rock as that island pic shows, and don't extend, as you believe , to the centre of the earth. You're really desperate to believe this stuff , aren't you.

Ria Halcomb
Ria Halcomb

@Paul Kuster Actually Paul would be correct in his statement as no true leftist would support true fascism


fas·cism

noun \ˈfa-ˌshi-zəm                                                    

: a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government

: very harsh control or authority

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

All I am saying is what all of the scientists are saying, And that is that, Yes the earths climate does fluctuate in temperatures and they have seen the proof in the ice cores. However, They are also saying that based on all of the prior data that the warming we are seeing now is above and beyond ANY normal warming trend in the earths recorded past, And that it can be proven that it is due to the wide spread use of fossil fuels by man. No other species on the planet has the ability to change the climate like man. And if we don't get a hold of this, It is going to spin out of control. We have the ability to fix this, But it extremely difficult especially for the little guy. That's why we must work together as a PLANET, and not as individual countries, Because if we don't do something about now it will be to much to handle farther down the road. I don't think anyone can argue with that kind of logic. It's going to affect everyone.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

It is not "nonsensical"at all! What we are saying is that the planet as a whole is getting warmer at a MUCH FASTER RATE then ever before due to mankinds use of fossil fuels. It makes PERFECT Sense that the more fossil fuels we use the faster the planet will warm, And at a faster rate then it would be the normal cycles that the planet goes through. It's very simple!!!

Paul Kuster
Paul Kuster

@Dwayne LaGrou  If you can't say "exactly" how are you in a position to lecture us that this is all wrong and what you propose is right? Tell us what climate is the right one and how you've arrived at that conclusion and how you propose to freeze frame it for generations to come?

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

No one can say what the normal range is EXACTLY, However, If we use a scale of 1to 10 then they can say that the normal range of NATURAL change would be from like 2 to 4, But that it is actually changing at an 8 or 9 then we know that THAT much change is ABNORMALLY HIGH! Now I'm really over simplifying it But you get the big picture. All of the scientists that work in hundreds of different weather related fields have documented numbers that when compared to the past recorded history of Normal weather change from ice cores from hundreds of different locations, That the rate of change we are in RIGHT NOW is higher than ANY OTHER change that has ever happened with the exception of times like when the earth was struck by an object from space that wiped out the Dinosaurs.

When you look at that much change we are in serious trouble unless we can reverse it or at least stop the climbing. You see what I mean?

We could be heading for a change so drastic that there is no past record to really accurately compare it to, It's that bad!

And I can't speak for everyone, But I worry for our children and theirs and so on!

We could be contributing to our own extinction. That's very scary!?

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I totally agree with you!!! The evidence is overwhelming and still some people do not think that there is a problem or reason to worry. Oh well, we know that sooner or later it's going to bite them in the end! Your response was very well stated and straight forward, I like that!!!

andrea ferri
andrea ferri

@John Simpson @Dwayne LaGrou  Which is why anyone who is correctly informed, does not refer to this phenomenon as "Global Warming".  Global warming is an accepted fact by all scientists that describe the imminent warming of the earth's surface.  "Climate Change" describes that human beings are causing warming to occur at a faster rate than the natural cycle.  If you don't believe that the earth is warming and causing detrimental damage to the environment, then I highly suggest that you go read a book... or move to Canada. 

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Well then all of the people that do not believe that we have drastically altered the planet should just keep their heads in the sand until it gets covered up with water from the melting poles!!!

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