Permamelt: 500,000-Year History of Permafrost Reveals Further Warming of 1.5°C Would ‘Thaw Significant Regions’

Last fall, a major study found that the carbon feedback from thawing permafrost will likely add 0.4°F – 1.5°F to total global warming by 2100. That was based on climate modeling. A new study looks at the paleo-climate record and comes to an equally worrisome conclusion — JR.

Caves point to thawing of Siberia

Oxford University news release

Evidence from Siberian caves suggests that a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius could see permanently frozen ground thaw over a large area of Siberia, threatening release of carbon from soils, and damage to natural and human environments.

A thaw in Siberia’s permafrost (ground frozen throughout the year) could release over 1000 giga-tonnes of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, potentially enhancing global warming.

The data comes from an international team led by Oxford University scientists studying stalactites and stalagmites from caves located along the ‘permafrost frontier’, where ground begins to be permanently frozen in a layer tens to hundreds of metres thick. Because stalactites and stalagmites only grow when liquid rainwater and snow melt drips into the caves, these formations record 500,000 years of changing permafrost conditions, including warmer periods similar to the climate of today.

Records from a particularly warm period (Marine Isotopic Stage 11) that occurred around 400,000 years ago suggest that global warming of 1.5°C compared to the present is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost far north from its present-day southern limit.

A report of the research is published in this week’s Science Express. The team included scientists from Britain, Russia, Mongolia and Switzerland.

‘The stalactites and stalagmites from these caves are a way of looking back in time to see how warm periods similar to our modern climate affect how far permafrost extends across Siberia,’ said Dr Anton Vaks of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, who led the work. ‘As permafrost covers 24% of the land surface of the Northern hemisphere significant thawing could affect vast areas and release giga-tonnes of carbon.

‘This has huge implications for ecosystems in the region, and for aspects of the human environment. For instance, natural gas facilities in the region, as well as power lines, roads, railways and buildings are all built on permafrost and are vulnerable to thawing. Such a thaw could damage this infrastructure with obvious economic implications.’

The team used radiometric dating techniques to date the growth of cave formations (stalactites and stalagmites). Data from the Ledyanaya Lenskaya Cave – near the town of Lensk latitude 60°N – in the coldest region showed that the only period when stalactite growth took place occurred about 400,000 years ago, during a period with a global temperature 1.5°C higher than today. Periods when the world was 0.5-1°C warmer than today did not see any stalactite growth in this northernmost cave, suggesting that around 1.5°C is the ‘tipping point’ at which the coldest permafrost regions begin to thaw.

Dr Vaks said: “Although it wasn’t the main focus of our research our work also suggests that in a world 1.5°C warmer than today, warm enough to melt the coldest permafrost, adjoining regions would see significant changes with Mongolia’s Gobi Desert becoming much wetter than it is today and, potentially, this extremely arid area coming to resemble the present-day Asian steppes.”

— Oxford University news release

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45 Responses to Permamelt: 500,000-Year History of Permafrost Reveals Further Warming of 1.5°C Would ‘Thaw Significant Regions’

  1. Niall says:

    I suspect that we’re about to find out the naivety of using economic and political ontologies to tackles earth sciences problems.

    The politicians tell us, for economic reasons that we have to settle for 2C of warming. According to this research, melting “permafrost” will add substantially to that at 1.5C.

    Meanwhile the scientists (I’m thinking James Hansen here) tell us that the upper possibly safe boundary (Hansen says probably “considerably lower”) for atmospheric GHGs is at a point we passed several decades ago.

    It’s probably already way too late but, if it’s not, we need to start using the proper intellectual tools for the job. Using a discredited economic ontology to deal with this is like expecting an linguist to tell us how to build a space shuttle.

  2. dan allen says:

    Joe — James Hansen’s graphs have 400K years ago nowhere near 1.5oC more than today’s +0.8oC temp. What do you make of the discrepancy here?


  3. Joe Romm says:

    Not sure. There is much regional variation.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Beach deposits in Alaska, Bermuda and the Bahamas, as well as uplifted reef terraces in Indonesia, suggest that global sea level reached as much as twenty metres above the present.[5][6][7] During MIS 11, δ18O records show isotopic depletions that are consistent with a sea-level highstand, but temperature effect cannot be confidently disentangled from glacioeustasy. Moreover, the collapse of at least one major ice sheet has to be inferred in order to produce similar high sea-levels

    Carbon dioxide concentration during MIS 11 was possibly similar to that documented in the pre-industrial period, but not especially high when compared to other interglacial periods (for example, CO2 concentration was probably higher during MIS 9.[4] In addition, a peculiar feature of MIS 11 is that an early CO2 peak, usually associated to the deglaciation in response to increasing temperatures, is not detected.

    MIS 11 represents the longest and warmest interglacial interval of the last 500 kyr. In fact, it shows the highest-amplitude deglacial warming in the last 5 Myr and possibly lasted twice the other interglacial stages. MIS 11 is characterized by overall warm sea-surface temperatures in high latitudes, strong thermohaline circulation, unusual blooms of calcareous plankton in high latitudes, higher sea level than the present, coral reef expansion resulting in enlarged accumulation of neritic carbonates, and overall poor pelagic carbonate preservation and strong dissolution in certain areas. Wikipedia Marine_Isotopic_Stage_11

  5. David Goldstein says:

    Joe- this was posted in the Guardian story on this topic 4 days ago: “They found the stalactites in one far northern cave on the boundary of continuous permafrost grew during a period 400,000 years ago when temperatures were 1.5C higher than in pre-industrial times.”

    This makes sense based on the graph Dan Allen referred to- this would mean only another 0.7 C would do it.

  6. Solar Jim says:

    My initial take: Northern latitude temps are warming much faster than average global temps (polar amplification). Ice and permafrost melting occurs from ambient conditions, rather than average global.

  7. Sailesh Rao says:

    All the more reason to draw-down carbon by regenerating forests before removing aerosols from the atmosphere.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    Thank you Joe, I was looking forward to your take on this.

    Obviously we need look no further than the arctic ice cap melting away as well as initial permafrost areas starting to thaw to see where we’re headed here.

    It’s nice to have some scientific measurements in the ground on this topic now(from a place I’d never have anticipated).

  9. Sasparilla says:

    Yes, and it doesn’t look like that Polar Amplification is going to diminish in the foreseeable future.

  10. yphilj says:

    From a chart on Wikipedia – – notice that the interglacial at 400k years ago is not necessarily warmer (if we take CO2 as a proxy) but it does have substantial breadth or duration relative to the other interglacials.

  11. perceptiventity says:

    What is the baseline time for this 1.5 C rise in global temperatures,please? If it is before 1900s,after all, we are almost there, are we not?

    “…our work also suggests that in a world 1.5°C warmer than t o d a y, warm enough to melt the coldest permafrost…”

    “They found the stalactites in one far northern cave on the boundary of continuous permafrost grew during a period 400,000 years ago when temperatures were 1.5C higher than in pre-industrial times.”

  12. Paul Magnus says:

    2C was an arbitrary figure picked by some economist.
    1.5C is a rough figure based on one study.
    0.8C Hansen has already said was too much.

    Rate of global temp rise probably has some implication here.

  13. perceptiventity says:

    Or is it,rather, because the ‘permafrost boundary’ is much further south compared to the place where it will start melting when the temperatures rise another 1.5C starting from 2013 ?

    Thank you for any clarification and excuse my ignorance

  14. David Goldstein says:

    If it is indeed 1.5 since pre-industrial times, then we are only 0.7 C away.

  15. Spike says:

    The news release states:

    “Records from a particularly warm period (Marine Isotopic Stage 11) that occurred around 400,000 years ago suggest that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the modern (pre-industrial) climate is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost far north from its present-day southern limit. ”

    So we are 0.7C away from that, with much of that already in the pipeline. Inevitably we are going to see a permamelt it seems.

  16. BillD says:

    For the past ten years or more, melting of the “permafrost” and the ensuing release of CO2 and methane has been the really scarey part of climate change. We are really close to the point, maybe already past, where humans won’t be controlling the release of CO2 because of “natural releases.” How long before the denialists say that we shouldn’t try to reduce human emissions because “natural emissions” are so high.

  17. Superman1 says:

    Kevin Anderson said that the 2 C target came from the politicians, and that 1 C is a better target. However, his computations and publications are based on what would be required to keep us below 2 C. The CO2 reductions required globally for 2 C are ~10%/year, which he views as near impossible. However, if these computations were to be done for 1 C, or even close, we would need a vertical slope. In other words, end fossil fuel use today!

  18. Superman1 says:

    Hansen is right on; 0.5 C is a better target, and if we throw in a safety factor, 0.2 or 0.1 C should be the target. ANY new CO2 emissions from here on out are global suicide!

  19. Superman1 says:

    Note that all these new climate change findings go in one direction only; increasing positive feedback mechanisms. Start saying Kaddish for Eaarth!

  20. Camburn says:

    MIS-11 and the current interglacial, the Holocene, are very similar in orbital parameters.

    During MIS-11, the polar ice sheets did melt.

  21. Camburn says:

    One would not expect Polar Amplification to diminish, as the last interglacial also presented warmer temperatures than present.

    “The oxygen isotopes in the ice imply that climate was stable during the last interglacial period, with temperatures 5 °C warmer than today.”

  22. A temperature target, even if arbitrary, is useful. It gives people something to shoot for. But it’s a two-edged sword: if we’re not there yet, then it tells them we have some wiggle room.

    This article reinforces that we don’t have that wiggle room; that we need to drastically reduce carbon output as fast as possible, while possibly coming up with some plausible, minimally destructive, and minimially risky way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    You know what I’m going to say. But as we’ve discussed here recently, there’s value in (constructive) repetition. The ice cap is a better target. It’s visible, it’s not arbitrary, and its disappearance can be intuitively apprehended as disturbing and an affront to nature even if one can’t visualize precisely what will happen when it’s gone (beyond a brief and cruelly ironic flurry of fossil fuel exploitation).

    What will happen is that the jet stream will exhibit much more amplitude in its wave patterns. It will probably slow. It will search for what is missing: the cold that was the hub of its circulation and the boundaries of the no-longer sharp temperature gradient that used to channel it.

    Don’t worry too much about the beaches in 2100. Worry about seasonal rainfall patterns the year the white summer ice cap inverts to black open ocean. Which could be 2018, give or take.

    Save the ice cap.

  23. John McCormick says:

    Change, it is all about the Arctic ice cap.

    It is the canary laying on its back at the bottom of the cage.

    If the big green spent just a bit of its time and money making this the most important part of the climate awareness, maybe the public would begin to understand how it happened and how we are all victims of climate chaos to follow.

    Dr. Jennifer Frances and her science colleagues are doing their part but our big green are not.

  24. john c. wilson says:

    Take a quick look at the open water off Barrow today(February 27, 2013) and the extensive fracturing throughout the Beaufort Sea. Yes, it just could be 2018 that the ice cap goes to opean ocean. It could also be 2013.

  25. Calamity Jean says:

    Yes, it’s going to be … … interesting. When the Arctic Ocean finishes melting, the circumpolar winds will be almost literally “knocked into a cocked hat”. Greenland will still be ice for a few more years, so it will form a “cold pole” for the winds to swirl around.

  26. Superman1 says:

    When the ice cap goes, in the Summer, there will be solar insolation 24/7 plus warm water pouring in from the Atlantic, all going to raise the Arctic water temperature. Couple that with the newly-discovered clathrates at 290 m depth, and there is a formula for disaster. There are organizations I guarantee know the distribution of these clathrates, but they ain’t talkin’. I wonder why not?

  27. Superman1 says:

    “Save the ice cap.” Twenty years too late; she’s toast!

  28. Superman1 says:

    “maybe already past”. Well past!

  29. Solar Jim says:

    This is like asking “How long before the Captain at the helm of the Titanic slows down?” He actually had more boilers lighted because he was serving an owner’s desire to “make an impression” with their first crossing.

  30. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    But wouldn’t these goals require a non-causal system response – possible only with the help of Dr. Brown and his DeLorean, H. G. Wells’ time machine, or Peabody and Sherman’s Wayback Machine?

  31. Solar Jim says:

    In the armed madhouse called US we have more important things to do (than people like the Arctic Methane Emergency Group). We are most concerned with “fiscal sequestration,” a term I believe began in relation to “carbon sequestration.” Rather like “sustainability” being used in regards to “sustainable growth.” We certainly have growth of an undeniable sort – multifaceted disaster. Call it Disaster Corporatism on the Global Scale.

  32. Superman1 says:

    ‘Was” is certainly better than ‘is’, in this case. But, any CO2 emissions from here on out put us further out on thin ice, literally and figuratively!

  33. john c. wilson says:

    Atlantic water upwelling into the Beaufort right now is one likely reason for what we are seeing. It may be possible the ice is so very thin ordinary currents, wind, and weather are moving ice around but then there needs to be an explanation for why it should be quite that thin in Beaufort in deep winter.

    The open water and fractures are easily visible in the Uni-Bremen AMSR imagery, in Lance-Modis visible light satellite photography and in AVHRR infrared. It is really spectacular. Not a sure indicator the ice all goes this season but this shall most certainly be an eventful melt season. And in ordinary times the melt would not have begun yet at all.

  34. Sasparilla says:

    Change, I think the saying and target (arctic ice cap) is an excellent one.

    It would be good to get that out in the public’s mind and very few people have any idea we’re going to loose it at all, let alone so soon. Whether its already gone doesn’t really matter, we need easy to comprehend visual things people can look at and instantly understand that “we’ve really messed this up” and want to fix (after we mess it up – i.e. melt it away) – to get action pushed through in D.C. when the time comes.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    My God, that’s a relief! That means we can safely mine and burn heaps more fossil fuels, then enjoy the balmy temperatures. I must buy some coal-mining shares. Do you have any, Camburn?

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Big Green= Big Sell-out, years and years ago.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Get with the program, Jim! ‘Sustainable development’ has now morphed into ‘sustained development’. They don’t care about hiding their true intentions any more, the Big Green Quislings being right ‘on message’ and on the good old gravy train.

  38. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Impression created – stunning success! Isn’t that how the private enterprise cum marketing system works? ME

  39. Joan Savage says:

    From the permafrost modeling study:

    “Finally, the release of permafrost carbon will continue for many years even if atmospheric warming stops. Permafrost has huge thermal inertia, resulting in a lag between when warming starts and thaw begins. The start of permafrost thaw typically occurred 25 or more years after warming started and 20% of the total thawing occurred after warming stopped in 2100.”

    Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming

    Note well that it is *only* a modelling assumption that warming COULD stop in 2100!

    Basically this is like a freight train. We have to put the brakes on at present if we can expect to come to a stop miles ahead down the track.

  40. At least the Sierra Club and the NRDC are coming around. Time to pressure the rest of the groups to start doing something about what they are supposedly doing something about.

  41. I don’t have much to add to this discussion, since it has covered most of what I would say on the topic. But thanks, everyone — this is why I come to CP every day.

    I do have a climate-change-communication bumper sticker — or, better, a sticker for the back of my bicycle jacket — I would like to share:


    Just a thought. Even though things are getting out of hand, we still need to do everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Maybe if we can tie the destruction of climate change to unemployment people will be more inclined to act.

  42. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Excellent thought. Reverse the FF industries’ nonsense. Plenty of people not working in poor old sodden Queensland, ME

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Could be catchier though. I know Americans love the work ‘kill’ so I’ve retained it although it gives me the shivers. I’d go: ‘Climate change kills jobs: Kill climate change.’ Or just the first half, ME

  44. Joan Savage says:

    It has a bit of tongue in cheek that I like.

    On a darker note, one could list areas of employment that are expanding with climate change: insect control, forest fire fighting, flood control, emergency management, development of drought and flood resistant food cultivars, humanitarian relief, not to mention illegal professions like migration “coyotes.”

    Too much for a bumper sticker, of course!