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Breaking News — Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss

By Joe Romm  

"Breaking News — Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss"


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permafrost-better.jpgA major new study published Friday in Geophysical Research Letters by leading tundra experts has found “Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss.” The lead author is David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), who I interviewed for my book and recently interviewed again via e-mail about his recent work. The study’s ominous conclusion:

We find that simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland….

In other words, if it continues, the recent trend in sea ice loss may triple Arctic warming, causing large emissions in carbon dioxide and methane from the tundra this century. What is especially worrisome is that 2007 provides strong evidence on behalf of this theory:

  • NOAA reported that methane levels rose in 2007 for the first time since 1998 (see here).
  • The tundra can emit vast amounts of methane when it defrosts (see Part 1).
  • Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands (see here).
  • And 2007 saw record Arctic ice loss [see "Ice Ice Maybe (not)"].

So I would certainly pay attention to what these scientists have to say. How much warmer did the Arctic get last summer, and how much warmer might it get with further ice loss?

From August to October last year, air temperatures over land in the western Arctic were also unusually warm, reaching more than 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1978–2006 average….

The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

Needless to say, such warming would have a huge impact on the permafrost:

“An important unresolved question is how the delicate balance of life in the Arctic will respond to such a rapid warming,” Lawrence says. “Will we see, for example, accelerated coastal erosion, or increased methane emissions, or faster shrub encroachment into tundra regions if sea ice continues to retreat rapidly?”

Faster shrub encroachment would, of course, also accelerate warming (see “Tundra 3: Forests and fires foster feedbacks“).

And all that warming would cause massive melting of the tundra and faster emissions release. That must be avoided at all cost, since the tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks that the IPCC models, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm (see Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return).

In the interest of completeness, there has been the typical academic back-and-forth on the details of Lawrence’s 2005 study (subs.req’d) on tundra loss this century. It now looks like that initial study slightly overestimated the rate at which permafrost would be lost. Lawrence revised and updated his analysis in this recent study, “Sensitivity of a model projection of near-surface permafrost degradation to soil column depth and representation of soil organic matter” (subs. req’d), which still finds: “Even at the depressed rate, however, the warming is enough to drive near-surface permafrost extent sharply down by 2100.”

I asked Lawrence if it was still reasonable to keep using this figure in my presentation, since it is so much easier to understand than the figures in his new paper.


He said, “Using the old figure is still fine as long as one mentions the caveats that permafrost is probably degrading a bit too rapidly in the original.” So I will certainly use that caveat, though, of course, I will also caveat the caveat by saying the slightly slower rate of permafrost degradation does not include Lawrence’s new analysis on the accelerated warming of the permafrost due to sea ice loss (or, for that matter, the accelerated warming of the permafrost due to faster shrub encroachment).

Needless to say, the time to act is yesterday!


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12 Responses to Breaking News — Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss

  1. Mauri Pelto says:

    What is it with all of the ice problems. At a recent snow and ice conference, there were several presentations of permafrost loss in the Canadian arctic and Alaska. The rate is hard to pin down, but it seems to be declining every where. In terms of the Antarctic sea ice remains extensive, but the ice shelves are the problem. An article of mine at realclimate today elaborates on this.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    Good, if terrifying article, Joe.

    This is why I’m convinced that our magic number for atmospheric CO2 concentration probably is closer to 350 ppm than 450. We’re still learning how the biosphere responds to an increase in retained heat in terms of which feedbacks happen, when they kick in, and how strong they are, but the revelations are almost universally bad news. Every new tile we add to the mosaic effectively lowers the magic number.

    And that, in turn, explains why I think it’s a dead certainty that we’ll wind up resorting to one or more of the very scary geoengineering “solutions” we keep reading about. After yet more years of policy paralysis, the effects of climate change will start appearing with such frequency and severity that even our political “leaders” won’t be able to ignore them, and by then it will be far too late to address the issue solely by reducing CO2 emissions.

    Excuse me–I have to go find a child to apologize to for what my generation has helped do to their world.

  3. gLORIA s says:

    Careful Lou, the kid’s mommy will probably think you are a pervert.

  4. hapa says:

    that, in turn, explains why I think it’s a dead certainty that we’ll wind up resorting to one or more of the very scary geoengineering “solutions” we keep reading about.

    don’t indulge yourself in that. we have no proof those will work or will be possible at necessary scale or will bring us somewhere we want to go.

    the effective, affordable, predictable path is getting rid of atmospheric carbon. don’t let anybody talk you out of that.

  5. Wonhyo says:

    I agree with Lou that the stable CO2 concentration is probably lower than 450, but I also agree with hapa that geoengineering solutions are too risky. The precautionary principle dictates that we have to do something about climate change because of the catastrophic consequences of not doing anything. The precautionary principle also cautions against large-scale geoengineering solutions because the unknowns are so great. The least risky, least unknown, and most effective means of climate stabilization are reducing consumption, improving efficiency, and switching from carbon based to non-carbon based energy sources.

    BTW, by “large-scale geoengineering solutions”, I’m referring to the various ways of trying to manipulate climate without reducing CO2 emissions: injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, shading the sun with satellites, etc. These schemes try to treat the symptom – warming climate – rather than removing the cause – human CO2 emission. I’m fully in favor of large-scale solar, wind, and other non-carbon-based, renewable energy sources (nuclear requires consideration of radioactive waste management). Perhaps it would be more descriptive to categorize solutions as “carbon-reducing geoengineering solutions” and “non-carbon-reducing geoengineering solutions”.

    Reducing consumption requires changing our economic system such that economic growth is decoupled (or negatively coupled) from growth in energy consumptions. Efficiency is driven by raising the cost of using energy. Switching from carbon to non-carbon fuels simply requires removing non-carbon subsidies and taxing carbon-fuels to reflect their true total cost to society.

  6. Albert says:

    On the subject of geo-engineering’s unintended consequences:

    New Scientist has an article titled “Ocean seeding fails the acid test.”

    “Fertilising the ocean with iron filings to battle global warming also produces a nasty acid lethal to marine life and even humans.”


  7. Wonhyo says:

    Previous comments (including mine) discuss “large-scale” solutions to climate change. One thing I read in “Water Wars” (Diane Raines Ward) is that hydro power can actually be more effective if implemented as numerous micro-scale hydro power generators, rather than a few large scale generators. The ecological impact is smaller and more spread out, and more easily absorbed. Transmission lines are shorter. Perhaps most importantly, the users have a very close connection to their power source and its limits.

    This principle could be applied to solar power in the entire sunny Southwest. Most homes could have the bulk of their home electrical power supplied entirely by rooftop solar panels. To a certain extent, this could also power electric vehicles, extending solar power to personal transportation.

    We could get much more immediate and direct long-term carbon-reducing effects by shifting nuclear, coal, biofuel subsidies to home solar installation subsidies. There’s no additional land required, no additional technology development, no additional transmission line installation. This will create a large number of new domestic jobs in solar installation. Thus, most of the benefit goes to a large number of individuals rather than to a few large corporations.

    We could go even further and mandate that all new homes in suitable areas be built with solar panels covering a minimum percentage of the rooftop; existing homes can be required to add solar panels upon the next sale. New homeowners can have several options: 1) pay for and own the solar installation and its energy output, 2) let the power utility pay for and own the installation and its energy output, or 3) let the power utility pay for installation, then lease the panels from the utility to obtain the energy output. Each time the house is resold, the new owner can choose any of these options.

    As energy prices go up, homeowners will have an incentive to install more and larger installations to sell their energy surplus at a profit. As the solar power production increases, coal/gas/(nuclear) power plants can be taken off-line and replaced with energy storage plants for night-time power output.

    This would probably have to be done one city at a time, to avoid overwhelming solar manufacturing capacity. If implemented, it could lead to sustained, long-term investment in reducing solar system costs, improving efficiency, and job creation.

  8. Lou Grinzo says:

    Just to be clear: I’m no fan at all of geoengineering “solutions”. (Notice the sarcastic quotes in my original post above around “solutions”.)

    I’m not saying that will work, merely that we will paint ourselves into a corner and have to resort to them. I think we’ll be incredibly lucky if we do more good than harm when we start directly tinkering with the climate like that.

  9. hapa says:

    we’re not there. that’s years from now.

  10. paulm says:

    Wonhyo Says: …Switching from carbon to non-carbon fuels simply requires removing non-carbon subsidies and taxing carbon-fuels to reflect their true total cost to society.

    I don’t think it will be that straightforward. There is chaos and hardship in there somewhere….

    lou: …the effects of climate change will start appearing with such frequency and severity …

    This, 2008, is the watershed year. Have a look at some of the graphs in this insurance report…and this is for a relatively cool start to the year. It’s happening now!


  11. An Earthling says:

    When I first stumbled upon this methane release from permafrost scenario I was flabbergusted at the gravity of the quite possible outcome and almost total absence of publicity in mainstream medea. It is like having our planet bombed.
    Our grand-dads and fathers battled against the propaganda of cold war (I am from the former USSR) and a possible nuclear fall out and now we have to endure the same shortsighted and insatiable bloody “governments”. No we are together in this rocking boat.When will this war on reason end?
    And now add to this the methane release from agricultural sources! I would advocate veganism as a moral prerequisite for sustainability but, please, at least abstain from cattle. But the real problem is the shear number of people that are infesting this beautiful (at places) planet.

    here some more links to permafrost problem articles:



    Good luck!