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Researchers Quantify Greenhouse Gases From Melting Arctic Permafrost: ‘Potential To Alter The Planet Is Very Real’

By Climate Guest Contributor on November 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm

"Researchers Quantify Greenhouse Gases From Melting Arctic Permafrost: ‘Potential To Alter The Planet Is Very Real’"


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by Bob Berwyn, via Summit County Citizens Voice

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say they’ve quantified the amount of greenhouse gases that could be released into the atmosphere as Arctic permafrost starts to melt.

“This study quantifies the impact on Earth’s two most important chemical cycles, carbon and nitrogen, from thawing of permafrost under future climate warming scenarios,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “While the permafrost of the polar latitudes may seem distant and disconnected from the daily activities of most of us, its potential to alter the planet’s habitability when destabilized is very real.”

As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today.

The release of carbon and nitrogen in permafrost could exacerbate the warming phenomenon and will impact water systems on land and offshore according to USGS scientists and their domestic and international collaborators.

The previously unpublished nitrogen figure is useful for scientists who are making climate predictions with computer climate models, while the carbon estimate is consistent and gives more credence to other scientific studies with similar carbon estimates.

To generate the estimates, scientists studied how permafrost-affected soils, known as Gelisols, thaw under various climate scenarios. They found that all Gelisols are not alike: Some have soil materials that are very peaty, with lots of decaying organic matter that burns easily — these will impart newly thawed nitrogen into the ecosystem and atmosphere.

Other Gelisols have materials that are very nutrient rich — these will impart a lot of nitrogen into the ecosystem. All Gelisols will contribute carbon dioxide and likely some methane into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition once the permafrost thaws. These gases will contribute to warming. What was frozen for thousands of years will enter our ecosystems and atmosphere as a new contributor.

“The scientific community researching this phenomena has made these international data available for the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As permafrost receives more attention, we are sharing our data and our insights to guide those models as they portray how the land, atmosphere, and ocean interact,” said study lead Jennifer Harden, USGS Research Soil Scientist.

The article, “Field information links permafrost carbon to physical vulnerabilities of thawing,” was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Bob Berwyn is the Editor of Summit County Citizens Voice. This piece was originally published at the Summit Voice and was reprinted with permission.


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12 Responses to Researchers Quantify Greenhouse Gases From Melting Arctic Permafrost: ‘Potential To Alter The Planet Is Very Real’

  1. BillD says:

    I’m confused by the linkage of carbon and nitrogen. Won’t most of the N be in the form of nitrate that would only have a very local effect. Are they saying that amonium would be released in the atmosphere and have a widespread effec? Neither N2 nor amonium are green house gases.

    • mikkel says:

      Saw a discussion about this on another site. People decided that they were referring to the creation of nitrous oxide, which is a good assumption.

  2. VL says:

    I’ve been wondering: are any researchers quantifying the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions because of Sandy wiping out power over a swath of the northeast, and dramatically reducing the number of airline flights, for a week? I’m very curious about this–it seems to me that any dent made could be parlayed into arguments that reducing energy usage could have an immediate effect. (It seems to me that a frequent argument against doing anything to slow down our fossil fuel use is the resignation that it won’t do any good, or it’s too late.)

  3. Is there a time-frame for how quickly the carbon is likely to be released over the next century? And…reading findings about permafrost thaw feel like reading a movie script about the demise of humanity. Am I missing something? Is it true that the implications are that, as the permafrost thaws and IF we trigger a scenario where the warming becomes self-perpetuating (more thaw, more emissions, more warming, more thaw, etc.) then we are F*%ked. And, is it not also true that, essentially, even scientists can not say for certain when such a tipping point may be triggered? (a la underestimation of Arctic Sea Ice melt). Am I missing something here? Just wondering.

    • Aleph Null says:

      CP recently reprinted a SkepticalScience review of a paper called “Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback” which attempts to model how quickly the permafrost carbon could release. The bottom line is that the climate system is now (or soon will be) a ratcheting thermostat: we can turn the heat up, but not down. Even a total cessation of carbon emissions would leave atmospheric CO2 elevated through 2300, according to MacDougall et al.

      This does not mean that there’s nothing to be done. It’s more vital than ever to at least stop making matters worse with further carbon emissions.

      • thanks- yes I saw that on SS. It goes without saying-but I’ll say it!- that we are now playing a very very interesting game of dice- we better hope it comes up ’7s’ and not snake-eyes.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Surely the only rational conclusion that one, even a non-scientist, can draw from recent events is that a catastrophe is in its early stages. For our immediate purposes this is partly a climate catastrophe, but when one also considers biodiversity loss, oceanic acidification and stratification, the spread of anoxic and hypoxic ‘dead zones’, the loss of 90% of large pelagic fish, mass tree deaths across the planet, megafires and the general toxification of the biosphere by ubiquitous pollution of every kind, then certainly we are stuffed. The only way out, growing slimmer and less likely by the hour, is a concerted global program of rapid decarbonisation and centuries of hard graft in ecological repair. And to achieve that miraculous escape all dreams of global Empire, of the ineffable superiority of ‘Western Civilization’ over the rest of humanity, of the efficacy of unbridled greed as the path to human happiness and of inexorable, neoplastic, economic growth must be recognised as the nightmares that they truly are. Wealth must no longer be accumulated by a tiny caste of the infinitely avaricious, but rather must be redistributed back to the people who created every cent of it. And consumption and human population must be humanely reduced, yesterday preferably, but today must suffice. Any politician, economist or soothsayer with any other program is, I would assert, an idiot, a liar or an ignoramus, or some combination of these virtues.

  4. Solar Jim says:

    If the sciences are “our scouts” then what are the criteria for “clear and present danger.”

  5. Hey Everybody,

    There is hope on the horizon IF we can get a handle on emissions — carbon sequestration. There are various means of taking “historic” (existing) carbon out of the atmosphere (sequestration). The most promising approaches, in my opinion, are variants of biosequestation using algae to capture carbon and make fuel with some of it, using agricultural waste to make biochar and so on.

    If we dramatically cut our carbon emissions and simultaneously sequester significant quantities of atmospheric carbon, we might be able to put the brakes on this thing.

    • Given its rapid decline, the Arctic ice cap could disappear within just a few years. Like five or ten. Then, with the Arctic inverted from heat reflector to heat collector, we’re very likely locked into a feedback loop of warming, permafrost melt, further methane and carbon release (by what ever mechanism), and further warming.

      To avoid this, it seems we’d have to turn the CO2 accumulation graph around immediately, and begin to remove whatever carbon we can from the atmosphere, starting tomorrow. Then the ice cap might survive, and we’d avert this death spiral.

      It’s all about the ice cap. As goes the ice cap, so goes the climate.

      Save the ice cap.

    • wili says:

      Let’s start with a halt to UN-sequestration.

      Then, yes, some kind of solar- or wind-powered re-sequestration would need to be part of any realistic plan to prevent totally catastrophic climate change (which actually seems to be now upon us).

      Keep in mind that this will ultimately involve generating more renewable energy than all the ff energy we have extracted so far, none of which can be used for anything other than sequestration.

      Since humans domesticated fire (or did it domesticate us??), we have depended on exo-somatic forms of energy. Since humans started un-sequestering ff carbon and burning it, our use of exo-somatic energy has expanded by many orders of magnitude, especially for the top consumers.

      One question is can we come to appreciate lifestyles that consume much less of everything, including energy?

      • Solar Jim says:

        Your terminology is your framing. I offer that substances in the earth’s lithosphere are “forms of matter,” not energy. To borrow from A. Lovins, igniting explosive and contaminating substances is to sustainable economics as a chain saw is to handling butter at dinner. Furthermore, while I promote such strategies as net-zero architecture, natural energy flows make “fossil fuels” look in comparison like distribution of limited cups of poison.