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Climate Change

Thawing Permafrost May Be “Huge Factor” in Global Warming

Crack patterns in Arctic permafrost as viewed from a helicopter. Credit: Brocken Inaglory/cc by 3.0

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Feb 14 2013 (IPS) - Thawing permafrost is emitting more climate-heating carbon faster than previously realised. Scientists have now learned that when the ancient carbon locked in the ice thaws and is exposed to sunlight, it turns into carbon dioxide 40 percent faster.

“This really changes the trajectory of the debate” over when and how much carbon will be released as permafrost thaws due to ever warmer temperatures in the Arctic, says researcher Rose Cory of the University of North Carolina.

There are 13 million square kilometres of permafrost in Alaska, Canada, Siberia and parts of Europe. As previously reported by IPS, a 2011 study estimated that global warming could release enough permafrost carbon to raise global temperatures three degrees C on top of what will result from human emissions from oil, gas and coal.

Human emissions are headed for four degrees C of global heating, warned the International Energy Agency (IEA) this week. A rapid “decarbonization of electricity supply” is needed to avoid that future, the IEA said as it released a new book titled “Electricity in a Climate-Constrained World”.

“The solutions are well-known: increased energy efficiency, greater research and development of low-carbon energy production, and putting a realistic price on carbon,” the book says.

Carbon emissions from permafrost are not included in IEA projections. Climate models haven’t included them either, Cory told IPS. Nor has anyone factored in the latest discovery that sunlight accelerates the conversion of ancient carbon into carbon dioxide gas.

“We’re trying right now to scale up this finding to get an estimate of how much more carbon might be released,” she said.

Cory and her colleagues studied places in Arctic Alaska where permafrost is melting and is causing the overlying land surface to collapse, forming erosional holes and landslides and exposing long-buried soils to sunlight.

They found that sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon into carbon dioxide gas by at least 40 percent compared to carbon that remains in the dark. The team reported its findings in an article published online Feb. 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This means permafrost carbon is potentially a huge factor that will help determine how fast the Earth warms,” said co-author George Kling, a University of Michigan ecologist.

“We can’t say how fast this Arctic carbon will feed back into the global carbon cycle and accelerate climate warming on Earth, (but) the fact that it will be exposed to light means that it will happen faster than we previously thought,” said Kling in a statement.

Once the Arctic gets warm enough, the carbon and methane emissions from thawing permafrost will kick-start a feedback that will amplify the current warming rate, Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, previously told IPS.

There is no accurate estimate of methane emissions, which are 40 times as potent in terms of warming as carbon. Methane could have a big impact on temperatures in the short term, Schaefer said.

In 2011, Schaefer’s research showed that the permafrost “tipping point” was just 15 to 20 years away. In light of Cory’s discovery, that will now have to be revised. The only question is how much sooner.

Prepare for a three to five degree C warmer world, said Sir Robert Watson the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Speaking at a symposium in London Tuesday, Watson, the science director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said the world has missed its chance to stay below two degrees C.

“All the evidence, in my opinion, suggests we’re on our way to a three to five degree C world,” Watson told participants at the symposium.

When Watson was chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002, optimism was high there’d be a global agreement to limit emissions. “We were hopeful that emissions would not go up at the tremendous rate they are rising now,” he told the Climate News Network, a UK journalism news service.

“(Now) all the promises in the world, which we’re not likely to realise anyway, will not give us a world with only a two degree C rise.”

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  • Russell Cook

    This kind of report basically looks more credible when it is put out in the heat of summer, not when the region in question is under subzero temperatures or at least near zero during the day. Check it out for yourselves:

  • Jack Wolf

    When I read about how we have experienced yet another record like today’s drought report , or any of the many record breaking weather events of late, my heart sinks. And, they just keep on coming. That sick pit at the bottom of stomach just won’t go away.
    And, I fear that if I don’t do something, my punishment will be Al Gore haunting me in the afterlife. Forever and ever. Now, I just can’t let that happen, can I? He’s much too professorial to be much fun I’m sure, and when I die (most likely in a new record breaking beyond biblical climate event), I just want to have fun. So, no Al please, not that, anything but that.

    As such, I have decided to attend the Climate Action on the National Mall this Sunday, the 17th at 11:30 AM by the Washington Memorial. I don’t want to go, I have better things to do, but I must and so I shall. It is for all of our sakes, young and old at this point. And to get that Al out of my future dead head.

  • Tami Kennedy

    Not sure what map Russell is looking at but summer is in the 40’s – 50’s

  • Tami Kennedy

    Glad to see you are making it to DC

  • dan bloom

    VERY good piece. wonder if you can interview me someday soon re my work since 2006 about polar cities for survivors of climate change in future, as adaptation strategy? i have produced two books so far on this meme, gotten approval from James Lovelock by email, and here is link: — email me for email interivew i am overseas at danbloom AT gmail

  • wilbert Robichaud

    There is a real panic going on as evidenced by increasingly extreme and silly

  • BrentOz

    Good to see this important research getting a run in the popular media, undoubtedly deserves much wider coverage than it will get. I’m intrigued by the assertion Methane is 40 time more potent than CO2 though. Current 100 year “integrated time horizon” Global Warming Potential figure is 25, but as the atmospheric lifetime of CH4 is only around 12 years, the 20 year GWP of 71 seems much more relevant to climate policy. Factor in the role of OH molecules and some science suggests a GWP of 105 is more realistic, and at this point is does get complicated, but the take home point for all of us is that the real global warming impact of methane emissions is routinely understated and underestimated, so best to brace ourselves for further surprises.

  • William Fox

    To put things into perspective , in the year 2000

    According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia,within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”.

    “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said.

    At the moment more than half the world is under a snowcover (as of february 2013)

  • $23733764

    I have been reading some research in the area of release of methane trapped under the permafrost caps as well as in the ocean hydrate deposits. There seems to be only a small increase in the overall AGW effect of this. The methane tipping point or feedback cycle just does not occur due to the short half-life (7-10 years as opposed to 100s for CO2) of methane in the atmosphere. It will be interesting to see if the research in this article is corroborated by other scientists but at this time I do no believe it has been.

    Here is an interesting article discussing methane release:

  • Stephen Leahy

    Methane levels are climbing and responsible for 28% of warming

    While methane has a shorter ‘half-life’ as you say, it’s heat trapping abilities are 25 to 40x greater than CO2. That additional heat releases thaws more permafrost, releasing more methane and CO2 in a positive feedback. This new peer-reviewed research by several experts from a number of countries shows its happening faster. The rate is very important.

  • Stephen Leahy

    One month does not make a trend. Last winter the entire N Hemisphere had its lowest ever snow cover.

    Turns out David Viner is correct, snow has been in decline since the mid 1980s. see graph .

  • Stephen Leahy

    Brent, I’ve been using the 40 times for a while having seen the various GWP numbers you note. I don’t remember who told me 40 was more representative. But as you say its complicated…

  • $23733764

    Thanks Stephen, I read the research and see your point about the 28% contribution of methane to warming. It does however raise the question about the non-linear increase in methane. I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the rate of increase and the period of no increase pointed out in the report. There are some sources of methane that are being reduced such as venting from oil recovery. With the price of methane going up more and more is being recovered versus being vented. I think we need to do a lot more research in this area to get a better handle on just how much methane can be released from decomposition of the organic matter in permafrost and how much might be released if the permafrost cap is removed from trapped methane. Also, how much might be released from hydrates in the ocean.

    I agree there is the possibility of runaway methane feedback cycle, but there are at least as many questions as answers right now. The estimates of the amount of trapped methane is a really big question. Unfortunately, I think we will both learn the answer whether we like it or not. I cannot envision any quick turnaround in the increase in global warming baring some global level catastrophe.

  • Jean

    4 degree C by when?I was going to have some Permaculture people help me improve my soil and develp a better system of retaining water..Why bother???

  • Stephen Leahy

    go for it… 4C is unlikely before 2080

  • Stephen Leahy

    Yes, many unknowns and high risks. Thus the need to be very conservative and reduce methane and CO2 emissions where ever possible.

  • Stephen Leahy

    Not sure what you mean? It’s science study why does it matter if released in winter or summer…

  • $23733764
  • jim adams

    There’s a new kid on the block –Soot. 2nd only to CO2 and likely to remain there unless and until methane kicks it out of #2 slot. (see: Nat Geo, 6/2010, Melt Zone) where they say that only 5% of the atmospheric dust is soot, but that amount added year after year makes a huge melt difference. They mention a melt-water lake of 11 billion gallons which emptied in 84 minutes — a torrent larger than Niagara falls — and that’s just one they saw. Since Greenland is the approximate size of the Louisiana Purchase, it’s likely they missed a bunch of such lakes.

    So, the Greenland Ice Cap is not (as assumed) a massive, solid ice mountain more than a 6500 feet thick says Wikipedia. This is mostly true, but change the word “solid” to crack-filled (see Youtubes of glaciers’s impressive) and the massive Greenland ice mountain is rotting from too much soot.

    Add to this the Koch Brothers are selling petcoke (google it) which is Athabasca tar sands oil with the gasoline, etc. removed. They are selling it as a cheap replacement for coal; they sold 11 million tons last year; it has a higher carbon and soot and CO2 content than coal…..

    I note that a couple decades ago, we were talking about years 2100 to 2200 as the radical take on when Global Climate Change probably would be serious, and sea level might … just might.. rise a meter or two. Today, it is a factor of 10 less than that 1 to 2 centuries for the radical assumptions. I also note that in the last few decades, the radical, short-term changes have been the closest to correct, as measured by what’s happening in the real world.

    Part of it is new discoveries: Aha –ancient carbon exposed to sunlight turns to CO2 40% faster; the Greenland Glacier is NOT a solid ice mountain; the Arctic sea ice just might melt before 2150 or then abouts and the methane clathrate “locked” in the permafrost might well be released in the next couple decades. …

    And then here is one of the things we inlanders can look forward to. This one is from inland Australia, Jan, 2012. The curve is called a “kink”. and this is a large one. Note that a 2″ – 4″ deviation is just as deadly at 40 or more mph, and we are getting those today here in the US.

  • Handbasketsurfer

    Ice cracking apart in the freezing winter is very unusual, and thus newsworthy! The report would seem LESS credible if it were to report the ice breaking up during the warm season, since that is when the ice USUALLY breaks up. Duh!

  • Handbasketsurfer

    Sorry, but your info is way out of date. Try 2030, possibly sooner.

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