Arctic Permafrost Thawing Will Double Previous Carbon Emissions Estimates

February 11th, 2020 by  

A new study shows that the abrupt thawing of the Arctic permafrost will double previous estimates of potential carbon emissions — carbon that was once frozen in the permafrost ice. In fact, it is already changing the landscape and ecology of the circumpolar north.

Merritt Turetsky (Credit: INSTAAR)

This study, by the Colorado University–Boulder, shows the difference between gradual permafrost thaw and more abrupt types of permafrost thaw.

Lead author of the study, Merrit Turetsky, who is also the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder, says that this abrupt thawing is “fast and dramatic, affecting landscapes in unprecedented ways. Forests can become lakes in the course of a month, landslides occur with no warning and invisible methane seep holes can swallow snowmobiles whole.”

Why Does This Matter?

The obvious thing to many of us is the issue of methane getting out into the atmosphere and causing more warming, but there are other issues as well. Think of the permafrost as the world’s largest freezer, one which hasn’t been cleaned for millions of years. As the climate gets warmer, the permafrost will melt. This will trigger a massive defrost that will thaw out not just twice as much carbon that is in the atmosphere now, but also the remains of life that once flourished in the Arctic. This includes dead plants, animals, and microbes. This matter, which never fully decomposed, has been locked away in this freezer for thousands of years.

Turetsky also points out the obvious — these findings bring new urgency and make the case that permafrost should be included in all types of climate models. At present, there are no climate models that include thermokarst and just a few that even consider permafrost thaw at all. “The impacts from abrupt thaw are not represented in any existing global model and our findings indicate that this could amplify the permafrost climate-carbon feedback by up to a factor of two, thereby exacerbating the problem of permissible emissions to stay below specific climate change targets,” says David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who also co-authored the study.

Trotsky adds, “We can definitely stave off the worst consequences of climate change if we act in the next decade. We have clear evidence that policy is going to help the north and thus it’s going to help dictate our future climate.” 

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