Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Abrupt permafrost thaw increases climate threat, experts say

Date:
December 1, 2011
Source:
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Summary:
As the Arctic warms, greenhouse gases will be released from thawing permafrost faster and at significantly higher levels than previous estimates, according to a survey of international experts. Permafrost thaw will release approximately the same amount of carbon as deforestation. However, the effect of thawing permafrost on climate will be 2.5 times greater because emissions include methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Ben Abbott, graduate student, right, and Jay Jones, professor of biology, both of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks collect soil cores and gas flux measurements from a landscape north of the IAB Toolik Field Station on the North Slope where permafrost has thawed and the ground has collapsed -- called a thermokarst.
Credit: Photo by Marie Gilbert/IAB

As the Arctic warms, greenhouse gases will be released from thawing permafrost faster and at significantly higher levels than previous estimates, according to survey results from 41 international scientists published in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Nature.

Permafrost thaw will release approximately the same amount of carbon as deforestation, say the authors, but the effect on climate will be 2.5 times bigger because emissions include methane, which has a greater effect on warming than carbon dioxide.

The survey, led by University of Florida researcher Edward Schuur and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Benjamin Abbott, asked climate experts what percentage of the surface permafrost is likely to thaw, how much carbon will be released and how much of that carbon will be methane. The authors estimate that the amount of carbon released by 2100 will be 1.7 to 5.2 times larger than reported in recent modeling studies, which used a similar warming scenario.

"The larger estimate is due to the inclusion of processes missing from current models and new estimates of the amount of organic carbon stored deep in frozen soils," Abbott said. "There's more organic carbon in northern soils than there is in all living things combined; it's kind of mind boggling."

Northern soils hold around 1,700 billion gigatons of organic carbon, around four times more than all the carbon ever emitted by modern human activity and twice as much as is now in the atmosphere, according to the latest estimate. When permafrost thaws, organic material in the soil decomposes and releases gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

"In most ecosystems organic matter is concentrated only in the top meter of soils, but when arctic soils freeze and thaw the carbon can work its way many meters down, said Abbott, who studies how carbon is released from collapsed landscapes called thermokarsts -- a process not accounted for in current models. Until recently that deep carbon was not included in soil inventories and it still is not accounted for in most climate models.

"We know about a lot of processes that will affect the fate of arctic carbon, but we don't yet know how to incorporate them into climate models," Abbott said. "We're hoping to identify some of those processes and help the models catch up."

Most large-scale models assume that permafrost warming depends on how much the air above the permafrost is warming. Missing from the models, say the authors, are processes such as the effects of abrupt thawing that can melt an ice wedge, result in collapsed ground and accelerate additional thawing.

"This survey is part of the scientific process, what we think is going to happen in the future, and how we come up with testable hypotheses for future research," Schurr said. "Our survey outlines the additional risk to society caused by thawing of the frozen North and the need to reduce fossil fuel use and deforestation."

By integrating data from previous models with expert predictions the authors hope to provide a frame of reference for scientists studying all aspects of climate change.

"Permafrost carbon release is not going to overshadow fossil fuel emissions as the main driver of climate change" said Schuur, "but it is an important amplifier of climate change."


Story Source:

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


Journal Reference:

  1. Edward A. G. Schuur, Benjamin Abbott. Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw. Nature, 2011; 480 (7375): 32 DOI: 10.1038/480032a

Cite This Page:

University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Abrupt permafrost thaw increases climate threat, experts say." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 December 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111130161535.htm>.
University of Alaska Fairbanks. (2011, December 1). Abrupt permafrost thaw increases climate threat, experts say. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111130161535.htm
University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Abrupt permafrost thaw increases climate threat, experts say." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111130161535.htm (accessed September 2, 2014).

Share This




More Earth & Climate News

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Sharks Off the Menu and on the Tourist Trail in Palau

Sharks Off the Menu and on the Tourist Trail in Palau

AFP (Sep. 2, 2014) Tourists in Palau clamour to dive with sharks thanks to a pioneering conservation initiative -- as the island nation plans to completely ban commercial fishing in its vast ocean territory. 01:15 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Iceland Lowers Aviation Alert on Volcano

Iceland Lowers Aviation Alert on Volcano

AFP (Sep. 1, 2014) Iceland has lowered its aviation alert on its largest volcano after a fresh eruption on a nearby lava field prompted authorities to enforce a flight ban for several hours. Duration: 01:07 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Lightning Hurts 3 on NYC Beach

Lightning Hurts 3 on NYC Beach

AP (Sep. 1, 2014) A lightning strike injured three people on a New York City beach on Sunday. The storms also delayed flights and interrupted play at the US Open tennis tournament. (Sept. 1) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

AFP (Sep. 1, 2014) Fears are mounting in Bangkok that poor planning and lax law enforcement are tipping Thailand towards a waste crisis. Duration: 01:21 Video provided by AFP
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:

More Coverage


Climate Change May Happen More Quickly Than Expected

Nov. 30, 2011 As global temperatures continue to rise at an accelerated rate due to deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, natural stores of carbon in the Arctic are cause for serious concern, researchers ... read more
from the past week

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