The Big Thaw

Ancient Carbon, Modern science, and a race to save the world

by Eric Scigliano. Epilogue by Theodore Roosevelt IV

With John Schade, Robert Holmes, and Susan Natali

Chris Linder, photographer

In collaboration with Woods Hole Research Center

Permafrost⁠—dark, ice-flaked, permanently frozen ground that lies under tundra and boreal forests across our northern regions⁠—covers more than 12 percent of the earth’s land mass. It exists in places that seem otherworldly and unimaginably remote to most of us, but the changes taking place in the permafrost layer may ultimately affect the lives of every person on Earth.

In The Big Thaw, readers meet a diverse team of scientists and students who have been studying the permafrost and what lies beneath: a vast store of ancient carbon, more than four times the quantity found in all of today’s forests, which is releasing carbon dioxide and methane as the permafrost melts. The release of all this carbon would alter Earth’s climate forever. Braving endless hordes of mosquitoes, quicksand, and extreme temperatures, the researchers are racing against the clock to educate us all about the changes we must make in order to preserve Earth’s carbon balance.

“Yes, there is cause for alarm. There is more carbon in the permafrost than currently exists in the atmosphere today, and it continues to be released at an epic scale. However, our hope is that the story from the Arctic, along with the stories of these young scientists who are not afraid to ask questions and who approach research with creativity and resolve, act as a catalyst for change.”
— Dr, Robert Max Holmes, Deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, from the introduction of The Big Thaw


Established in 1985, Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) seeks to advance scientific discovery on climate change impacts and solutions. WHRC was founded by ecologist Dr. George Woodwell, who became alarmed in the early 1980s about the impending threat of climate change. Woodwell designed an organization that would conduct rigorous scientific research on climate change causes and impacts and also work to deliver that science to policy makers and decision makers. In an effort to incorporate climate science into societal decision-making, WHRC also works with non- governmental groups, such as private industry, conservation organizations, and universities.



Chris Linder is a professional science and natural history photographer. A former US Navy officer and oceanographer, Linder now focuses on communicating the stories of scientists working in extreme environments. Linder is a Senior Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers, a Fellow National in the Explorers Club, and a member of the SeaLegacy Collective.


Eric Scigliano is a journalist and author with a longtime interest in climate change, the Arctic, and the alarming intersection between the two. He has been a science writer at the University of Washington and a staff writer and editor at several newspapers and magazines, and has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Discover, Harper’s, Technology Review, and many other national publications. Scigliano is the author of Michelangelo’s Mountain and Seeing the Elephant: The Ties That Bind Elephants and Humans (originally published as Love, War, and Circuses) and coauthor, with Curtis Ebbesmeyer, of Flotsametrics and the Floating World.

Dr. Robert Max Holmes is deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. He is an earth system scientist who studies rivers and their watersheds and how climate change and other disturbances are impacting the cycles of water and chemicals in the environment. Dr. Holmes is also interested in the fate of the vast quantities of ancient carbon locked in permafrost in the Arctic, which may be released as permafrost thaws, exacerbating global warming. He previously served as director of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic System Science Program and in 2015 was elected National Fellow of the Explorers Club.

Dr. Susan Natali is an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. She is an Arctic ecologist who studies the response of Arctic ecosystems to a changing environment and the local to global impacts of these changes. Her research examines the effects of permafrost thaw on global climate and impacts of fire and landscape characteristics on permafrost vulnerability. Dr. Natali has worked extensively in remote regions of Alaska and Siberia conducting research and, as a faculty member of the Polaris Project, training the next generation of Arctic scientists. Dr. Natali earned her BS in biology from Villanova University and her PhD in ecology and evolution from Stony Brook University.

Dr. John Schade is an Arctic scientist and educator who, through his role as the educational coordinator for the Polaris Project, is training the next generation of Arctic scientists. Dr. Schade also serves as a distinguished visiting scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), studying the impacts of climate change on streams and wetlands in the Arctic. Before coming to WHRC, he spent ten years on the faculty at St. Olaf College in central Minnesota, where he began developing ideas about the education of new scientists that continue to influence his work with the students and faculty of the Polaris Project.

Theodore Roosevelt IV is an investment banker with Barclays where he is Chairman of its Clean Tech Initiative. He has long been an active conservationist. He served on the boards of the League of Conservation Voters, Trout Unlimited, World Resources Institute, and the Student Conservation Association. Currently he is Chairman of the Board of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and on the Boards of the Wilderness Society, Climate Realities, and the American Museum of Natural History. He is also on the Advisory Board of Columbia University’s  Global Center on Energy Policy.

Ted Roosevelt Rio Grande photo 2018 JPEG.jpg


November 6, 2019 - Photographer Chris Linder presents The Big Thaw at Clark University as part of “A new Earth conversation” (Full event info)

November 21, 2019 - Max Holmes and Chris Linder present at The Mountaineers Program Center in Seattle, Washington

(Full event info)

February 6, 2020 - Photographer Chris Linder presents The Big Thaw at The Stegner Center, Salt Lake City, Utah (event info)

Past Events

August 22, 2019 - Author Eric Scigliano presents at Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle Washington as part of “A Pecha Kucha Powered Event: A Changing Arctic – Culture, Community and Climate”


Woods Hole Research Center

Furthermore Foundation

PERMAFROST IS A PHENOMENON that few people have seen, much less studied, and that few give any thought to. . . . And yet, as it thaws, the Arctic’s permafrost has the potential to upend the lives of people living in seaside condos in Miami, in exurban dream houses overlooking scenic wildlands in California, on the scorching and artificially green once-and-future deserts of the Southwest, on shrinking coral islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and in flimsy houses perched precariously on slippery hillsides in Haiti and on the floodplains of Bangladesh.
— Eric Scigliano, author of The Big Thaw