Even though the arctic zone of continuous permafrost has relatively cold mean annual air temperatures, we found an abrupt, large increase in the extent of permafrost degradation in northern Alaska since 1982, associated with record warm temperatures during 1989–1998. Our field studies revealed that the recent degradation has mainly occurred to massive wedges of ice that previously had been stable for 1000s of years. Analysis of airphotos from 1945, 1982, and 2001 revealed large increases in the area (0.5%, 0.6%, and 4.4% of area, respectively) and density (88, 128, and 1336 pits/km2) of degrading ice wedges in two study areas on the arctic coastal plain. Spectral analysis across a broader landscape found that newly degraded, water-filled pits covered 3.8% of the land area. These results indicate that thermokarst potentially can affect 10–30% of arctic lowland landscapes and severely alter tundra ecosystems even under scenarios of modest climate warming.