Arctic permafrost: sleeping giant, or ticking time bomb?

Arctic permafrost melting – a 2004 photo

For those with some understanding of the climate system, and the danger of amplifying feed backs (or positive feed backs) the CO2 and methane currently buried under the Arctic permafrost is of concern. Now it seems it is leaking – out gassing – in greater quantities. Science Daily reports

Permafrost (perennially frozen) soils underlie much of the Arctic. Each summer, the top layers of these soils thaw. The thawed layer varies in depth from about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the coldest tundra regions to several yards, or meters, in the southern boreal forests. This active soil layer at the surface provides the precarious foothold on which Arctic vegetation survives. The Arctic’s extremely cold, wet conditions prevent dead plants and animals from decomposing, so each year another layer gets added to the reservoirs of organic carbon sequestered just beneath the topsoil.

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon — an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That’s about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth’s soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.

But, as scientists are learning, permafrost — and its stored carbon — may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned.

“Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures — as much as 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius) in just the past 30 years,” Miller said. “As heat from Earth’s surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic’s carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming.”

Current climate models do not adequately account for the impact of climate change on permafrost and how its degradation may affect regional and global climate. Scientists want to know how much permafrost carbon may be vulnerable to release as Earth’s climate warms, and how fast it may be released.

Research is under way:

CARVing Out a Better Understanding of Arctic Carbon

Enter CARVE. Now in its third year, this NASA Earth Ventures program investigation is expanding our understanding of how the Arctic’s water and carbon cycles are linked to climate, as well as what effects fires and thawing permafrost are having on Arctic carbon emissions. CARVE is testing hypotheses that Arctic carbon reservoirs are vulnerable to climate warming, while delivering the first direct measurements and detailed regional maps of Arctic carbon dioxide and methane sources and demonstrating new remote sensing and modeling capabilities. About two dozen scientists from 12 institutions are participating.

“The Arctic is warming dramatically — two to three times faster than mid-latitude regions — yet we lack sustained observations and accurate climate models to know with confidence how the balance of carbon among living things will respond to climate change and related phenomena in the 21st century,” said Miller. “Changes in climate may trigger transformations that are simply not reversible within our lifetimes, potentially causing rapid changes in the Earth system that will require adaptations by people and ecosystems.”

Image source: Arctic Science Journeys

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39 thoughts on “Arctic permafrost: sleeping giant, or ticking time bomb?

  1. mgm75 says:

    Could somebody translate that into equivalent farting cows for “you know who”.

  2. BBD says:

    The broad, general view seems to be that permafrost melt and high latitude NH seabed clathrate deposits are going to be at the slower end of the fast feeback spectrum. Eg Realclimate.:

    Arctic methane, and all that frozen soil carbon, could easily play a huge role, not so much in the near-term evolution of Earth’s climate, but in the long tail of the global warming climate event.

    We shall see. The carbon cycle hasn’t been run at warp factor 9 before (even during the PETM). That aside, there’s no comfort in the current expert assessment unless one truly doesn’t care about the long term effects of AGW.

  3. john byatt says:

    When I first came across this group they sounded very alarmist,

    not so sure any more

    • BBD says:

      Stoat/Connolley is not at all convinced…

      I have no idea.

      • john byatt says:

        Connolley’s only point that I can see is “it hasn’t happened yet”

        like you i await further developments.

      • john byatt says:


        17 March 2012 ” I see that page relies heavily on the Piomas graphs, whose extrapolation I’ve disagreed with before and do now.”

        six months later and the arse fell out of PIOMAS volume

        • BBD says:

          As I say, I have no idea. The scientific understanding of potential carbon cycle feedbacks from high NH latitude permafrost melt and submarine clathrate instability is a work in progress.

          Keenly awaiting developments. Will develop opinion accordingly.

  4. May I suggest the moderator consider what to do about the zombie arguments such as “there’s been no warming”? These topics have been debunked time and time again – yet the same recalcitrants post these time and time again. Their silliness dilutes anything new or interesting. SciAm would simply delete them. Other bloggers corrupt them with the “kitten setting”.

    I’m sure there would be cries of “censorship”. But, hey, it is your blog. And if Watts can do it why can’t you? You could keep sticky post that says along the lines of “if it’s been debunked in SkS (or similar) it will be deleted here”.

    Just a suggestion, of course… We’d all like to increase the signal and reduce the noise.

      • john byatt says:

        Yes, especially when a new mark revelation has just come up

        ” I don’t agree at all that CO2 will continue to exert a 50% influence on temps into the future. I think that its just as or more likely that natural forcings will overwhelm CO2.”

        just what will these natural forcings turn out to be? stay tuned

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      JHS – I agree, I’m looking at more stringent application of guidelines.

    • Mark says:

      I was once bounced from a Yahoo religion discussion group because I kept referring to the Gospel of Judas even though the admin asserted that Judas wasn’t a Gospel.
      This is in that same class. You may not like to hear that temps have paused/stopped/plateaued/reached an hiatus (tick your preferred euphemism) but they have. Let’s just take it as given that when I say “there’s been no warming” I mean there’s been no warming in the atmosphere and surface since 199?.
      I accept that you desperately want to believe that warming has continued at some poorly monitored place far far away and this is the basis for your assertion that warming continues. But if I don’t accept that the data for the purported warming is good enough to hang your hat on, then I’m at liberty to continue to say that warming has stopped (temporarily?) at the surface.

      Frankly I’d be proud to get bounced for saying what some of your own High priests have been saying. It’d be a badge of honour.

      • john byatt says:

        I prefer the gospel of cyril myself,

        Which is about as coherent as your comment

        • john byatt says:

          don’t ban him, he is looking for a way out, or his work here is done,

        • Mark says:

          “Which is about as coherent as your comment”

          I just love this way of arguing which seems to permeate this group. Make some unsupported derogatory remark as though its a valid refutation and run like hell.

          Just say someone’s wrong without evidence. Allude to the idea that the evidence is manifold but you won’t bother raising it.
          Pretend that someone said so-and-so but refuse to delineate where or when they said it.
          Pretend you offered refutation but refuse to say where or when.

          When I see this type of thing I read it as “I don’t want what you say to be true but I can’t work out how it isn’t so I’ll pretend its beneath me to even address it.”

        • john byatt says:

          Again hadcrut the trend for the last decade was 0.15DegC, the three preceeding decades it was 0.17DegC.
          that is not cooling and not “no warming”

          it is warming albeit at a reduced rate .

          You referred to a JHS comment as drongo and now you reveal yourself as a hypocrite as well

          Narcissistic personality disorder, “it’s all about me”

        • john byatt says:

          gavin Schmidt NASA

          re link

          So here are a few things that are all equally true, conveniently plotted for your amusement:

          The linear trend in HadCRUT4 from August 1997 to August 2012 (181 months) is 0.03ºC/decade (blue) (In GISTEMP it is 0.08ºC/decade, not shown).
          The trend from August 1975 to July 1997 is 0.16ºC/dec (green), and the trend to August 2012 is 0.17ºC/dec (red).
          The ten years to August 2012 were warmer than the previous 10 years by 0.15ºC, which were warmer than the 10 years before that by 0.17ºC, which were warmer than the 10 years before that by 0.17ºC, and which were warmer than the 10 years before that by 0.17ºC (purple).
          The continuation of the linear trend from August 1975 to July 1997 (green dashed), would have predicted a temperature anomaly in August 2012 of 0.524ºC. The actual temperature anomaly in August 2012 was 0.525ºC.

        • Mark says:

          Using the SKS trend calculator, Hadcrut4 2002-2012 trend is -0.044 ±0.218 °C/decade (2σ).

          If you want to follow others in redefining “trend” so as to maintain the fiction that nothing’s changed then be my guest. But I don’t have to play that game.

        • john byatt says:

          2013 best estimate new global record 0.57C

          world met rankings

          1 2010 0.54
          2 2005 0.54
          3 1998 0.51
          4 2007 0.49
          5 2003 0.49
          6 2002 0.49
          7 2009 0.48
          8 2006 0.48
          9 2012 0.45
          10 2004 0.43
          11 2001 0.43
          12 2011 0.42

        • john byatt says:

          GISS 2007

          monthly mean 2007 1.2DegC

          sure looks like warming to me

        • Mark says:


          You’re not showing that it hasn’t stopped warming, just that its stopped at the highest level in the instrument record.

        • john byatt says:

          ” Using the SKS trend calculator, Hadcrut4 2002-2012 trend is -0.044 ±0.218 °C/decade (2σ).0.218 °C/decade (2σ).”

          you know what that is telling you ( ±0.218 )?

          you have not enough data to make a call

        • john byatt says:

          Mark it is not warming

          phil Jones hadcrut,

          yes it is

          GISS 2013, yes it is

          We suggest use of 12-month (and n×12) running mean temperature to fully remove the annual cycle and improve information content in temperature graphs. We conclude that global temperature continued to rise rapidly in the past decade, despite large year-to-year fluctuations associated with the El Niño-La Niña cycle of tropical ocean temperature.

        • BBD says:

          For goodness sake.

          For the nth time: the atmosphere is only a small part of the climate system. This argument is a troll’s misdirection and a misrepresentation of the true nature of the climate system.

          Can we stop playing this particular game please? It’s a waste of pixels.

          0 – 2000m OHC.

      • Gregory T says:

        Quotation by Mortimer J. Adler
        “We must bear in mind the distinction between fame and honor. A virtuous person is an honorable person, a person who ought to be honored by the community in which he or she lives. But the virtuous person does not seek honor, being secure in his or her own self-respect. Lack of honor does not in any way detract from the efficacy of moral virtue as an indispensable operative means in the pursuit of happiness…. Those totally lacking in virtue may achieve fame as readily as, perhaps even more easily than those who are virtuous. Fame belongs to the great, the outstanding, the exceptional, without regard to virtue or vice. Infamy is fame no less than good repute. The great scoundrel can be as famous as the great hero; there can be famous villains as well as famous saints. Existing in the reputation a person has regardless of his or her accomplishments, fame does not tarnish as honor does when it is unmerited.

  5. john byatt says:

    According to the study, the melting of sea ice in the Arctic has a tangible impact on the balance of greenhouse gases in this region, both in terms of uptake and release. The researchers have studied the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane both in the tundra and in the Arctic Ocean.

  6. Gregory T says:

    I myself, am going to find one of those floating islands and tow it to someplace where my family can can be safe from all this alarmist crap and live in peace for a few hundred years.

  7. Gregory T says:

    Sorry about the can can, I had just been reading about the LNP’s broadband.

  8. john byatt says:


    let’s poke it and see

    • Gregory T says:

      ” I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant” attributed to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. It’s not really known if he said it in the context of the attack on Pearl Harbor, It is also thought to have been “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Either quote, is apt in these circumstances and perhaps we need the “fear” to shake out the complacency that has stifled rational thought in this faux debate.

  9. john byatt says:

    NASA 2010

    According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and shown in this series of maps, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8°Celsius (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

    In the past decade (2000-2009), land temperature changes are 50 percent greater in the United States than ocean temperature changes; two to three times greater in Eurasia; and three to four times greater in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. Warming of the ocean surface has been largest over the Arctic Ocean, second largest over the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, and third largest over most of the Atlantic Ocean.

    • john byatt says:

      2011 Phil Jones, still warming Phil ? “yep still warming”

      Another year has passed since the original BBC interview, and in a new BBC article, Jones notes that the HadCRUT warming trend since 1995 is now statistically significant.

      “Basically what’s changed is one more year [of data]. That period 1995-2009 was just 15 years – and because of the uncertainty in estimating trends over short periods, an extra year has made that trend significant at the 95% level which is the traditional threshold that statisticians have used for many years.

      “It just shows the difficulty of achieving significance with a short time series, and that’s why longer series – 20 or 30 years – would be a much better way of estimating trends and getting significance on a consistent basis.”

      As Jones notes, and as scientists like Lindzen and Motl should very well know, trying to assess trends in the noisy global temperature data over periods as short as 10-15 years is pointless. There’s just too much short-term noise, which if you’re going to look at such short-term data, you at least need to attempt to filter out first

  10. […] 2013/06/13: WtD: Arctic permafrost: sleeping giant, or ticking time bomb? […]

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