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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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