Bombshell: Warming May Shrink Russian Permafrost 30% by 2050

Browse image of Permafrost Extent

MOSCOW — Russia’s vast permafrost areas may shrink by a third by the middle of the century due to global warming, endangering infrastructure in the Arctic zone, an emergencies ministry official said Friday.

This AFP story snuck across my desk on little cat feet.  It didn’t get much attention,  in part because they buried the lede in the very last sentence:

Scientists have said that permafrost thawing will set off another problem because the process will release massive amounts of greenhouse gas methane currently trapped in the frozen soil.

Ya think?

The permafrost permamelt contains a staggering “1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, much of which would be released as methane.  Methane is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 (to 100) times as potent over 20 years!

The carbon is locked in a freezer in the part of the planet warming up the fastest (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“).  Countless studies make clear that global warming will release vast quantities of GHGs into the atmosphere this decade.  Yet, no climate model currently incorporates the amplifying feedback from methane released by a defrosting tundra.

Here’s more from the AFP story:

“In the next 25 to 30 years, the area of permafrost in Russia may shrink by 10-18 percent,” the head of the ministry’s disaster monitoring department Andrei Bolov told the RIA Novosti news agency.

“By the middle of the century, it can shrink by 15-30 percent, and the boundary of the permafrost may shift to the north-east by 150-200 kilometres,” he said.

The temperature of the zones of frozen soil in oil and gas-rich western Siberia territories will rise by up to two degrees Celsius to just three or four degrees below zero, he predicted.

Permafrost, or soil that is permanently frozen, covers about 63 percent of Russia, but has been greatly affected by climate change in recent decades.

Here is  a good 2010 video on what is happening to the Russian tundra.

Back in the February, NOAA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) dropped their own bombshell — Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100:

Figure:  Carbon emission (in billions of tons of carbon a year) from thawing permafrost.

The thaw and release of carbon currently frozen in permafrost will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations and amplify surface warming to initiate a positive permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) on climate…. [Our] estimate may be low because it does not account for amplified surface warming due to the PCF itself….  We predict that the PCF will change the arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42-88% of the total global land sink. The thaw and decay of permafrost carbon is irreversible and accounting for the PCF will require larger reductions in fossil fuel emissions to reach a target atmospheric CO2 concentration.

The NSIDC/NOAA study itself doesn’t even incorporate the CO2 released by the permafrost carbon feedback into its warming model!  Even so, in their study, the permafrost is adding more than one billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere by the mid-2030s!

The authors note that of the dozen or so studies done to date on permafrost melt by 2100, “Our projections of permafrost degradation fall on the low side, but well within the range of other published projections.”  An earlier NCAR-led study found half the land-based permafrost would vanish by mid-century on our current emissions path (see “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return“).

This conservative study “found that between 29-59 percent of the permafrost will disappear by 2200.”   Given that the head of the Russian ministry’s disaster monitoring department believes that 2°C warming is enough to shrink up to 30% of the Russian permafrost by 2050 — and  given that northern Russia is looking at as much as 10°C warming by century’s end (see here) — I’d  say we need to do a complete reevaluation of the risk of losing most of the permafrost by century’s end, resulting in rates of carbon flux this century more than double what NSIDC/NOAA considered

Further, the NSIDC-led study acknowledges that it almost certainly underestimates the warming the PCF will cause.  It assumes all of the carbon released will come out as CO2, not methane. If  even half of the carbon comes out as methane, then the warming impact over  a 20-year time frame would be 10 times as much!

Finally, that study only looked at the land-based permafrost.  Let’s remember the study from last year:

Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting:  NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”Methane and carbon release from the Arctic is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. This research finds a key “lid” on “the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir” near Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”

Again, the “climate pragmatists” out there who think R&D or an energy quest is going to stop us from multiple catastrophes are deluding themselves and others.  We need to start aggressive mitigation now as every major independent study concludes.  And if we don’t, then those who follow the science at least have the moral obligation to warn the public about what is coming, so they can prepare, even if their political leaders refuse to do so (see “The GOP War Against Climate Adaptation“).

Related posts and amplifying feedbacks:


Below are old comments from the earlier Facebook commenting system:

A moral obligation to tell people to prepare? Just how to “prepare? Everything I can think of or suggest I know is lame in relationto the magnitute of the problem. Yet I still try… People are much happier not knowing. And I can’t blame them, in fact, I’m a bit envious.

7 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 9:56am

  • shaheercassim (signed in using Yahoo)

I disagree heavily. We must reduce our emissions by 80% by 2020, geoengineer heavily, develop alternative foods (syn-food), prevent climate related genocide, and most of all we must hold those climate deniers and fossil industries accountable. They must be jailed and made accountable for spreading misinformation that harms present and future generations. We owe it to those under 18 and those unborn.

7 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 6:46pm

  • shaheercassim (signed in using Yahoo)

There are also black swans that could shut down our emissions completely. For example nuclear terrorism or a pandemic.

3 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 6:54pm

catman306 (signed in using Yahoo)

Our Biggest Security Threat Is Global Warming-Induced Extreme Weather.
We risk losing our country to permanent droughts and extreme natural disasters.

6 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 10:46am

Thomas W. Velke

())())))))OUR/PLANET BIGEST THREAT IS HAARP IN THE WRONG HANDS!!!()())))))))))))))))))))!?!

Like · Reply · August 8 at 3:19pm

Chris Golledge

I wonder how much difference burning of tundra/permafrost peat, as opposed to rotting, will make. I understand has been a recent uptick in the amount of tundra that burns per year. Burning is faster than rotting, but burning releases less methane than rotting and methane has more effect on the radiative energy balance.

5 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 11:03am

Mary Dicerni · Courtenay, British Columbia

I like the thought of gathering the peat, as in America, it is used by gardeners, and not much available. Can it be used ?

2 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 2:07am

mtmariner101 (signed in using Yahoo)

I’m pretty sure the public has heard about all this. Oh, you mean the part about really bad things will happen to the permafrost by 2050 if we don’t do something now…Yeah, but scientists have been warning us about all that, even the methane, for many years now. Setting the date at 2050 or 2100 for the bad stuff is not a big motivator for most people. AND, if my government refuses to take action, if the major polluting nations refuse to take action, what can I do to prepare? How much water and sun block do I need to store? If I am to warn the public so they can prepare for disaster I had better have some preparation advice to give. Maybe you mean mentally prepare. I do agree with that. In fact Earth Day should really be ‘mental preparation day’ or, as I like to call it, Ben Dover day.

4 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 4:35pm

Brooks Bridges

I think the public is hearing very little about global warming or climate change much less about permafrost melt. The “Wrong” has been very successful at making mentioning either socially unacceptable. In 1995, various civil rights organizations organized “The Million Man March”. This from a population base of what? 10% of the total US population? – less if you consider only adults? It achieved estimates of between 500,000 and 800,000 attendees. What did they do right? Why not something similar for Climate Change? Why is the Tar Sands Action spread over two weeks? That dilutes the impact. How long will “we” moan and groan and not do something like the million man march? Does anyone doubt that such a march wouldn’t force the media to notice?

3 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 7:20pm

Brooks Bridges

I was wrong. The population base for “The Million Man March” was more like less than 5% since it was by definition adult male. Makes it even more pathetic that a “The Million Realists Climate Change March” can’t put together a protest of greater than a million. Why? (an anguished Why?)

6 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 7:35pm

Thomas W. Velke

****BOTTOM LINE=PSYCH DRUGS@350.000.000Yr..!!()!!()!()))))))))))))&?!

1 · Like · Reply · August 8 at 3:25pm

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

The Rate of Permafrost Carbon Release Under Aerobic and Anaerobic Conditions and its Potential Effects on Climate.

Recent observations suggest that permafrost thaw may create two completely different soil environments: aerobic in relatively well-drained uplands and anaerobic in poorly-drained wetlands. The soil oxygen availability will dictate the rate of permafrost carbon release as carbon dioxide (CO2) and as methane (CH4), and the overall effects of these emitted greenhouse gases on climate. The objective of this study was to quantify CO2 and CH4 release over a 500-day period from permafrost soil under aerobic and anaerobic conditions in the laboratory and to compare the potential effects of these emissions on future climate by estimating their relative climate forcing. We used permafrost soils collected from Alaska and Siber…See More

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 3:26pm

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

Take NOTE FACEBOOK is actively manipulating comments, for instance now they do not let me post related content.

VIsit this link if you want to know more related implications from permamelt.

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 3:06am

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

“This AFP story snuck across my desk on little cat feet. ”

You know it was reported here in the Energy news section :)

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 2:35am

stevegeneral999 (signed in using Yahoo)

First, good news (sort of) my permafrost researcher friend tells me that the microbes that will burb methane in that environment do it v-e-r-y slowly, due to the cold temps. Apparently, from thawing to really revving up their metabolism is on the order of decades. Of course, that doesn’t help engender a sense of urgency with policymakers.

Second, bad news, due to synergistic atmospheric chemistry, methane can be MUCH worse than even the 72x over 20 years. See lelandpalmer77’s comment under Joe’s post on the NSIDC study here….

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 8:53am

Douglas Evans

This post illustrates yet again that even though the cause is most likely already lost we must keep the pressure up to recognize the emergency that the scientists warn us of and act accordingly. To not do so is to become complicit in the destruction of our collective future. Unfortunately no government in the world yet fully acknowledges the reality of this unfolding disaster and some (Canada and Australia for example) are fighting tooth and nail to avoid recognizing it at all. Those governments at the forefront of the move to phase out fossil fuels will be best positioned when the rush starts in earnest. Australia, my home, reluctantly tagging along at the back of the pack will probably be destroyed, first economically around mid century then environmentally before the end of the century. I feel sorry for my grandchildren.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 7:21pm

agres (signed in using Yahoo)

Talking about releases by such and such a date in the future gives people an excuse to put off reducing carbon their own carbon emissions. These permafrost emissions are here and now. They were not accounted for in the IPCC models. The IPCC hinted that this could happen, but they did not come out and say it. The time for emergency action is now. Saving the world is more important than any excuses about saving the economy.

Permafrost carbon releases are ongoing. However, they get larger as the world gets warmer. The AFP Story tells us that the releases grow as the world warms. If we act now, we still have a chance. If we wait even a few years we will lose our world.

AGW will be be hard on the economy. Worse AGW will be harder on the economy. Unless we promptly do our utmost, AGW will destroy the world and our economy. Everyday that our elected representatives do nothing about climate change, we slide a day closer to that Hell.

Tell them!

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 11:57am

John McCormick · Top Commenter

Agres, thanks for pointing out the obvious. This a chronic ailment of climate change believers and scientists. Telling us that 30% loss of permafrost in Russian by 2050 is like leaning out the window on the 20th floor and yelling to the man who jumped from the 50th floor,”You’re doing fine, so far.”

2 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 12:14pm

  • Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

A Paradigmen Shift has to occur. In a sense where our knowledge about growth within the boundaries of the planetary habitat must be rethought. System adaptation updates come one way or another.

1 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 2:43am

Marjory Schwartz Anderson · Conway, Arkansas

doesn’t look like we’ll jail fossil fuel mongers or climate deniers as someone suggests(too good to be true).need to do more with renewable energy sources.As it stands US has so many climate deniers making stupid decisions, congress, senate, and @ the top.I often feel hopeless for this planet.But am told to never give up hope.Most of our media communication is run by is great. also changing my “overusing practices” is good for me.I am blessed to still have some “ground” to use & observe.I’m sorry for so many who lose their livelihood to corporate destruction.Must be tough for scientists seeing the truth and nothing done.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 8 at 11:02am

Tony Raizis

I totally agree that the methane bombshell should serve as the Pearl Harbor of climate change action. But I went to a lecture by James Hansen, and he indicated that permamelt methane wouldn’t amount to much, and cited the Eemian interglacial as an example of where, as far as I am aware, no methane excursion occurred. Is the flaw in this argument the possibility that there simply wasn’t much organic matter around to anaerobically decompose? The considerable amount of organic matter could have formed during and since the Eemian, since there were many thousands of years for plants and animals to thrive, which could effectively fix alot of carbon.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 5:57pm

  • shaheercassim (signed in using Yahoo)

Thats odd, in his book Hansen says that there is a possibility of releasing large amounts of methane, perhaps faster than in any geologic record. Look at David Wasdell, Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semilitovs work.

2 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 6:35pm

Tony Raizis

I totally agree, and am familiar with Shakhova etc. But Dr Hansen believed that only the deep ocean reservoirs had enough methane to be a threat. Either he knows something we don’t or he has missed the Shakhova etc. papers. If the latter he should read up on the known science and quick.

1 · Like · Reply · August 5 at 11:01pm

Peter S. Mizla · Top Commenter · Vernon, Connecticut

In Hansen’s book the amount of methane is enormous. Having been stored away in huge quantities since last released in the PETM.

What amount of warming that releases methane is unknown , according to Hansen. The warming in the Eemian would not have been enough. Hansen feels a doubling of C02 from the pre-Industrial era could begin the process- but he is not certain at this time. It could be at 450ppm- which should be around 2030 or after.

Like · Reply · August 7 at 6:54am

Jeffrey Davis · Top Commenter

I’m a real bore on this issue because I think that there’s no real hope for carbon capture technologies. We’re not reducing our GHGs currently in this country, but we may. (A few more weather years like this one and deniers will have to go into hiding.) But, it’s hard to imagine us reducing GHGs by the amount that warming sub-Arctic soils will add. If so, we’re going to be at the mercy of Rube Goldberg engineering schemes.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 9:54am

  • shaheercassim (signed in using Yahoo)

If peak oil is between 2012 to 2020, then we have a great opportunity to change direction. The situation looks bad, but theres no point writing technologies off just because they are not commercially available yet. Personally I think we will be wiped out, but better to have some small hope, even if it is statistically a self delusion.

I suggest that we use people to crush and disperse silicate rocks as a job, hobby, and in place of weight lifting. Welcome to the Gulag.

Like · Reply · August 5 at 6:49pm

Joan Savage · Top Commenter · SUNY-ESF

Not to mention that a burst of methane could alter the stratospheric ozone layer one way or other.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 2:29pm

Mary Dicerni · Courtenay, British Columbia


1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 2:00am

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

It is happening in Canada/Alaska too, just the russian permafrost i think is the largest.

2 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 2:37am

Mark S Ritzenhein · Okemos, Michigan

I’m calling it the “Methane Rapture.”

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 5 at 4:26pm

Glen Cram · Knowledge Mobilization and Communications Manager at York University

Sorry, this isn’t news:
it’s at least 250 million years old!

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 11 at 11:14pm

me (signed in using Yahoo)

(Susan Anderson)
oops. Slight correction on Arctic Circle today’s temps. From this site:
Barrow 55F, Longyearben 45F.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 10:56pm

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

@ Joan Savage, very odd indeed. Well some post I can read only when ilog into my account. And weirdly enough now when I’m logged in I cannot see your post anymore…

Let’s hope CP is changing it’s comment system rather sooner than later.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 10:30pm

Joan Savage · Top Commenter · SUNY-ESF

I agree about changing the comment system, but as you would know, it would likely be a Think Progress decision, not just the CP blog. The current method has a feature that they’d be likely to want to carry forward. Each of the sign-ins has a way to filter spam and track ID. This allows active blogs like the CP to function in 24 time zones, and still let Lacey and Romm have a life away from the keyboard, including sleep. I do hope it gets resolved, soon. CP lost a lot of Australian contributors and I wonder if this was a factor.

Like · Reply · August 8 at 9:25am

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

HA HA HA HA my post is censored, explain why?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 2:59am

Joan Savage · Top Commenter · SUNY-ESF

Did it show up with a time delay? I see four from you from “16 hours ago” which translates to around 3 am EDT in the US (7 am UTC), but they are spread out among other comments. Facebook sorts semi-chronologically; it bumps up those with “likes” or longer strings of comments. I hate the way FB puts my own at the top as long as I am signed in, even when that is not in sequence. What it does to your hotmail is a mystery to me.

Like · Reply · August 6 at 7:24pm

Daniel DeGrandpre

I have a couple of relatives who drank the koolaid, mixed by the coch brothers, etc. No matter how much science based information I send them, there is always some alternative nonsensical response. In their mind this is a diabplical conspiracy to destroy the free market economy or some such. I think they truly believe the garbage they’ve been reading. These folks have been so completely brainwashed that no amount of truthful information will convince them otherwise. I doubt their egos would ever allow them to see the truth now, anyway. Multiply that by possibly millions of misguided people and you can imagine the damage done by fake science and the energy interests that funds it. Sadly, the political effect is non-action, when we need action the most. Until their homes are underwater or blown off their foundations, and even then I doubt that many of these people will ever get it. By the time the truth catches up to them it will have cought up to all of us. There is ample evidence throughout our known history that mankind will multiply and consume until their envirenment is decimated and until recently, there were always more places left that they could migrate to. Unless we can get really good at inner planetary travel very soon, we are stuck with the mess we have made.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 13 at 1:06pm

Peter Bartlett · Kingston upon Thames

If the Euro governments are struggling to work together to solve their debt problems, how can we expect our governments to come to a global agreement to address climate change? What do those of us who believe in this and care about the planet that we will leave for our children need to do to get our leaders to address this?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 5:51am

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