Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Bad Sign For Global Warming: Thawing Permafrost Holds Vast Carbon Pool

Date:
September 7, 2008
Source:
University of Florida
Summary:
Permafrost blanketing the northern hemisphere contains more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, making it a potentially mammoth contributor to global climate change depending on how quickly it thaws

Scientists say permafrost blanketing the northern hemisphere contains more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, making it a potentially mammoth contributor to global climate change depending on how quickly it thaws.
Credit: iStockphoto/Oksana Perkins

Permafrost blanketing the northern hemisphere contains more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, making it a potentially mammoth contributor to global climate change depending on how quickly it thaws.

So concludes a group of nearly two dozen scientists in a paper appearing this week in the journal Bioscience. The lead author is Ted Schuur, an associate professor of ecology at the University of Florida.

Previous studies by Schuur and his colleagues elsewhere have estimated the carbon contained in permafrost in northeast Siberia. The new research expands that estimate to the rest of the permafrost-covered northern latitudes of Russia, Europe, Greenland and North America. The estimated 1,672 billion metric tons of carbon locked up in the permafrost is more than double the 780 billion tons in the atmosphere today.

"It's bigger than we thought," Schuur said.

Permafrost is frozen ground that contains roots and other soil organic matter that decompose extremely slowly. When it thaws, bacteria and fungi break down carbon contained in this organic matter much more quickly, releasing it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, both greenhouse gases.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned about this natural process as temperatures in the world's most northern latitudes have warmed. Just last week, it was announced that the amount of sea ice covering the Arctic may reach a new low this summer. Meanwhile, there is widespread consensus that the highest latitudes will warm the fastest, a process already visible in the accelerated thawing of glaciers worldwide.

Two years ago, Schuur and two colleagues authored a paper in the journal Science estimating that 400,000 square miles of northeast Siberian permafrost contained 500 billion metric tons of carbon. For this new paper, scientists combined an extensive database of measurements of carbon content in different types of permafrost soils with the estimated spatial extent of those soils in Russia, Europe, Greenland and North America.

Schuur said the researchers estimated the carbon contained in permafrost to a depth of three meters, two meters deeper than many earlier estimates. Although permafrost depths vary greatly with location, basing the estimate on three-meter depth "better acknowledges the true size of the permafrost carbon pool," Schuur said.

The new estimate is important because it mirrors other climate change science suggesting that at a certain tipping point, natural processes could contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gases, supplementing human-influenced, industrial processes that release fossil fuel carbon, Schuur said.

"There are relatively few people living in the permafrost zone," Schuur said. "But we could have significant emissions of carbon from thawing permafrost in these remote regions."

How fast the permafrost would release its carbon is a hugely important question.

Schuur said the burning of fossil fuels contributes about 8.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Deforestation of the tropical forests and replacement of the forest with pasture or other agriculture is thought to add about 1.5 billion tons per year. How much permafrost will add will depend on how fast it thaws, but Schuur said his research indicates the figure could approach .8-1.1 billion tons per year in the future if permafrost continues to thaw.

With the Arctic warming and permafrost thawing, shrubs and trees are likely to grow on ground formerly occupied by tundra – indeed, such a transformation has already been observed in parts of Alaska, where some arctic tundra is becoming shrub land.

Because plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, it might appear they could compensate for whatever carbon is released by the thawed permafrost. But Schuur said the amount of carbon stored in the permafrost is far greater than what is found in shrubs or trees.

For example, he said, a mature boreal forest may contain five kilograms per meter squared of stored carbon. But the same area of permafrost soil can contain 44 kilograms, and 80 percent of that could be lost over long-term warming. "The bottom line," he said, "is that you can't grow a big enough forest to offset the carbon release from the permafrost."

The research was conducted as part of the International Polar Year 2008-2009 and sponsored by the National Science Foundation-funded National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in a grant to the Global Carbon Project.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Florida. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Florida. "Bad Sign For Global Warming: Thawing Permafrost Holds Vast Carbon Pool." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 September 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080903134309.htm>.
University of Florida. (2008, September 7). Bad Sign For Global Warming: Thawing Permafrost Holds Vast Carbon Pool. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080903134309.htm
University of Florida. "Bad Sign For Global Warming: Thawing Permafrost Holds Vast Carbon Pool." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080903134309.htm (accessed October 23, 2014).

Share This



More Earth & Climate News

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

San Diego Zoo's White Rhinos Provide Hope for the Critically Endangered Species

San Diego Zoo's White Rhinos Provide Hope for the Critically Endangered Species

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Oct. 22, 2014) — The pair of rare white northern rhinos bring hope for their species as only six remain in the world. Elly Park reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Trick-or-Treating Banned Because of Polar Bears

Trick-or-Treating Banned Because of Polar Bears

Buzz60 (Oct. 21, 2014) — Mother Nature is pulling a trick on the kids of Arviat, Canada. As Mara Montalbano (@maramontalbano) tells us, the effects of global warming caused the town to ban trick-or-treating this Halloween. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Traditional Farming Methods Gaining Ground in Mali

Traditional Farming Methods Gaining Ground in Mali

AFP (Oct. 20, 2014) — He is leading a one man agricultural revolution in Mali - Oumar Diatabe uses traditional farming methods to get the most out of his land and is teaching others across the country how to do the same. Duration: 01:44 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Detroit's Money Woes Led To U.N.-Condemned Water Cutoffs

How Detroit's Money Woes Led To U.N.-Condemned Water Cutoffs

Newsy (Oct. 20, 2014) — The United Nations says water is a human right, but should it be free? Detroit has cut off water to residents who can't pay, and the U.N. isn't happy. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins