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Mooney writes: "Rapid Arctic warming is expected to lead to the thawing of a great deal of frozen soil or permafrost, which, as it thaws, will begin to emit carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere."

The Noatak National Preserve in Alaska suffers from erosion and ground degradation due to permafrost thawing more frequently from global warming. (photo: Edward Schuur/University of Florida/AP/WP)
The Noatak National Preserve in Alaska suffers from erosion and ground degradation due to permafrost thawing more frequently from global warming. (photo: Edward Schuur/University of Florida/AP/WP)


The Shocking Climate Threat Nobody's Even Talking About

By Chris Mooney, Washington Post

06 April 15

 

hen we think about the Arctic in a warming world, we tend to think about sharp declines in sea ice and — that powerful symbol — the polar bear. But that’s far from the only problem that a melting Arctic brings.

In the past decade, scientists have been training more attention on another deeply troubling consequence. Rapid Arctic warming is expected to lead to the thawing of a great deal of frozen soil or permafrost, which, as it thaws, will begin to emit carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. And if this occurs in the amounts that some scientists are predicting, it could significantly undermine efforts to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.

Permafrost is simply defined as ground that stays frozen all year round. There’s a lot of it – it covers 24 percent of the surface of the northern hemisphere land masses, according to the International Permafrost Association. But more and more of it is thawing as the Arctic warms, and these frozen soils contain a vast amount of organic material — largely dead plant life — in a kind of suspended animation.

“It’s built up over thousand and thousands of years,” says Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s all stored away in a freezer, and as we’re warming the Earth, and warming the Arctic, it’s starting to thaw.”

As permafrost thaws, microbes start to chow down on the organic material that it contains, and as that material decomposes, it emits either carbon dioxide or methane. Experts think most of the release will take the form of carbon dioxide — the chief greenhouse gas driving global warming — but even a small fraction released as methane can have major consequences. Although it doesn’t last nearly as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, methane has a short-term warming effect that is many times more powerful.

Among the potential mega-problems brought on by climate change, including melting ice caps to the slowdown of the ocean conveyor system, permafrost emissions are unique. For it’s not merely about sea level rise or weather changes — it’s about amplifying the root problem behind it all, atmospheric carbon levels.

The emission of carbon from thawing permafrost is what scientists call a “positive feedback.” More global warming could cause more thawing of Arctic permafrost, leading to more emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and more thawing of Arctic permafrost — this does not end in a good place.

Moreover, in a year in which the world will train its attention on Paris and the hope for a new global climate agreement, permafrost emissions could potentially undermine global climate policies. Even as the world starts to cut back on emissions, the planet itself might start replacing our emissions cuts with brand new carbon outputs.

All of this, and the Arctic permafrost problem hasn’t received much attention — yet. “The concept is actually relatively new,” says Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It was first proposed in 2005. And the first estimates came out in 2011.” Indeed, the problem is so new that it has not yet made its way into major climate projections, Schaefer says.

“None of the climate projections in the last IPCC report account for permafrost,” says Schaefer. “So all of them underestimate, or are biased low.”

To understand why northern soils contain so much carbon it helps to understand why southern or tropical soils don’t. It all comes down to temperature, and how that affects how quickly microorganisms break down dead organic material (plant and animal life), causing it to release its carbon back into the atmosphere.

In temperate latitudes, it’s simple: Plants grow and pull carbon dioxide from the air — then they die, decompose and emit it back again. “In warmer temperatures, microbial activity will go on over all of the year,” says Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “So even if productivity in warmer climates [is] larger, there’s not much sequestration of carbon in the soil.”

But in permafrost regions, it’s very different. Plants grow much more slowly, and there are fewer of them — but their decomposition is also much slower, explains Romanovsky. So a large amount of organic material gets stored in the frozen ground. And this has been happening, in some cases, over tens of thousands of years since the last ice age, leading to a truly vast carbon store that is stuck in place — or, at least, it used to be.

“As long as the carbon stays frozen in permafrost, it’s stable,” says Schaefer. “It’s kind of like broccoli in your freezer. But if you take that out, it eventually thaws out and goes bad.”

The problem, in this case, is the size of the freezer. Just consider some basic numbers. According to a 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences, northern permafrost contains 1,700 to 1,850 gigatons of carbon — a gigaton is a billion metric tons — which is more than double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere (730 gigatons, says the NAS). And over 1,000 of those gigatons are thought to be stored in the top three meters of permafrost soil.

Nobody’s saying all of that is going to come out — certainly not immediately, and maybe not ever. However, as the Arctic continues to warm over the course of the century, emissions from permafrost could ramp up, and they could eventually reach a scale that could begin to offset climate gains. “It’s certainly not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that over the coming decades, we could lose a couple of gigatons per year from thawing permafrost,” says Holmes.

So far, permafrost emissions, if any, are pretty small. But by 2100, the “mean” estimate for total emissions from permafrost right now is 120 gigatons, says Schaefer. That’s no small matter, considering that according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences (see above), the world can only emit about 1000 total gigatons of carbon if we want to have a good chance of limiting the temperature rise to less 2 degrees Celsius of warming since 1860-1880.

According to the IPCC, the world had already emitted 515 gigatons by 2011, leaving a pretty tight remaining carbon “budget.” Permafrost emissions, if they’re big enough, could lead to busting the budget a lot quicker.

The world has been focused on some Arctic emissions problems lately that sound a lot like the thawing permafrost emissions problem, but should probably be distinguished from it. For instance, there is the concern about weird craters that have been found in northern Siberia, and the idea that these might be the result of methane explosions from permafrost.

While there’s still debate over how the craters were formed, though, it’s not clear that we’re talking about the same phenomenon. One reason? The craters are very far to the north in the area around the Yamal Peninsula, and that’s not where the thawing permafrost emissions problem is expected to first emerge. Rather, it should be the opposite — at the southern rim of where permafrost is found.

“The further south you go, the warmer it is, so the more vulnerable the permafrost is to thawing,” says Schaefer. “So all the emissions will be dominated by the southern margins, southern Alaska, Hudson Bay.”

Nonetheless, the craters have gotten vastly more media attention — because they’re mysterious, and because they’re thought to reflect dramatic methane explosions. But ultimately, the steady, long-term problem of carbon loss from permafrost may be scarier.

Later this month — on April 24 — the United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a group of eight nations with Arctic territories that helps to coordinate policy for the region. The State Department has specifically indicated that one of the focuses of the two-year chairmanship will be the issue of climate change. So, will permafrost emissions enter into policy considerations?

“This is a dangerous feedback loop as Arctic warming drives permafrost thaw, and the permafrost releases more GHGs into the atmosphere, accelerating change,” said a State Department official. “However, many questions remain about the processes by and time scales over which such emissions could be released into the atmosphere.”

The official said that through the Arctic Council, the United States will emphasize better monitoring and observation systems to detect emissions from permafrost. But the officials also underscored the importance of “an ambitious international climate agreement in Paris – this is where we need action to slow climate change.”

The concern is whether such an agreement will arrive soon enough to stop or at least blunt the permafrost problem. It’s “a true climatic tipping point, because it’s completely irreversible,” says Schaefer. “Once you thaw the permafrost, there’s no way to refreeze it.”


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+5 # kpsk 2015-04-06 09:06
Just remember, we only get what we deserve.
 
 
+11 # Billy Bob 2015-04-06 11:03
My children don't deserve this.
 
 
+1 # Seadog 2015-04-06 10:22
I more worried about the smelly methane emitting out of Rush Limpdongs mouth. He's doing more to warm the planet then the entire Arctic at this juncture.
 
 
-32 # brycenuc 2015-04-06 10:41
There'a lot false and scary "data" being presented here. The total amount of carbon in all fossil fuels could be emitted to the atmosphere without even approaching the 2-deg Celsius limit and this is 6 times that in the permafrost. Methane is not a serious greenhouse gas threat. It would have to increase by a factor of more than 100,000 to even equal that of carbon. We won't start melting the permafrost until the temperature reaches well beyond 2-deg Celsius limit (which it can't do by added CO2). This is an invention of the warming alarmists to counter the public awareness that that the previous predicted alarms have failed to materialize.
 
 
+14 # Dust 2015-04-06 10:55
Actually, no - those of us who live up here have been talking about this for a while now.

But I'm curious - what is the "public awareness that the previous predicted alarms have failed to materialize"? Is the general public actually reading peer-reviewed science now?
 
 
-2 # lfeuille 2015-04-06 16:04
Quoting Dust:
Actually, no - those of us who live up here have been talking about this for a while now.

But I'm curious - what is the "public awareness that the previous predicted alarms have failed to materialize"? Is the general public actually reading peer-reviewed science now?


Doubt it, but it would not be necessary to read peer review science. I read about this phenomenon a couple of years ago. I don't remember where, but it certainly wasn't peer reviewed.
 
 
+2 # Billy Bob 2015-04-06 19:57
I'd look again.
 
 
+14 # Billy Bob 2015-04-06 11:02
Scientific facts just can't get through to you, huh? You seem to be surrounded by your own clouded atmosphere, through which, facts cannot penetrate. You really need your own planet, to explore your own personal version of "science", without damaging the rest of us who are forced to deal with reality and are forced to deal with the consequences of your lies, or stupidity (which is it?).
 
 
+4 # Ken Halt 2015-04-06 20:14
BB: The very worst kind of ignorance is willful ignorance: impervious to fact or scientific evidence.
 
 
+7 # dsepeczi 2015-04-06 14:17
Quoting brycenuc:
There'a lot false and scary "data" being presented here. The total amount of carbon in all fossil fuels could be emitted to the atmosphere without even approaching the 2-deg Celsius limit and this is 6 times that in the permafrost. Methane is not a serious greenhouse gas threat. It would have to increase by a factor of more than 100,000 to even equal that of carbon. We won't start melting the permafrost until the temperature reaches well beyond 2-deg Celsius limit (which it can't do by added CO2). This is an invention of the warming alarmists to counter the public awareness that that the previous predicted alarms have failed to materialize.


Is there any scientific papers to corroborate your statements or did you just make them up as you went along ?
 
 
+19 # Billy Bob 2015-04-06 11:09
I believe that all science deniers need to have that fact written on their driver's license (like an organ donor indicator). If things really get as bad as SCIENCE tells us it could, those with "science denier" on their driver's license should no longer be allowed to eat. We will need to make what little food we can produce cover as much of the Earth's population as possible, and I propose that those who didn't care about this possibility enough to take it seriously (when we were warned and could have done something about it) deserve to starve, so that innocent children can eat.
 
 
+4 # pbbrodie 2015-04-06 13:16
Billy Bob,
Amen, brother!!!
 
 
0 # Granny Weatherwax 2015-04-07 08:13
"To eat" would be a bit too drastic, but "to drive", oh, my!
 
 
+1 # Malcolm 2015-04-06 14:09
There's one other "climate threat nobody's even talking about". This is the inconvenient fact that the amount of methane being burned, worldwide, is introducing enough NEW water vapor to raise sea level by approximately 13 mm per year. 13 mm doesn't seem that bad, does it? Well, 13 mm/year over 100 years is 1.3 meters, or 4.2 feet. THAT is a very big deal, and it will be even worse if we keep drilling more fracking wells.

The other issue is that our current rate, annually burning TWO TRILLION metric tons of methane, is putting FOUR POINT FIVE TRILLION metric tons of water vapor into the atmosphere. As y'all know, water vapor is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.


4.5 trillion metric tons! Just under five QUADRILLION POUNDS! Per YEAR!

By the way, according to Columbia University scientists, the average sea level rate of rise the last 5000 years has been less than 1 mm/ year. http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/SeaLevel/

Shocking.
 
 
0 # Granny Weatherwax 2015-04-07 08:16
Yet the worst offenders in terms of greenhouse effect as these gasses we use in refrigerators and AC: CFCs and HFCs.
CFCs were banned for the ozone layer issue but HFC are at least as bad when it comes to green house effect.
And there is no way we can develop a better alternative: the property we are looking for in these gasses is the same that makes them so potent for greenhouse effect.
 
 
0 # Malcolm 2015-04-07 10:33
Granny, do you know what the relative strength of refrigerants, water vapor, and CO2 are? I have tried to find this information,and various sources vary greatly in their numbers.

Also, don't give up on refrigerants! There's a very old refrigerant technology whose coolant gives off zero pollutants:ammo nia. In fact, I suspect it's still in use in refrigerators powered by either natural gas or propane. I had one of these refrigerators when I had no grid power. It was made by the Servel Company. Added bonuses: no compressor, no electricity needed (other than for a light). In fact, not a single moving part, other than the thermocouple powered safety valve on the pilot light. AND the refrigerator was SILENT!
 
 
0 # cicciuzzu 2015-04-06 16:39
Readers who want scientific info about methane release to the atmosphere should check out the website ARTIC NEWS. There one can discover that methane release is expected to suffocate all of us by 2040 - 2060 if no steps to prevent this are taken.
 

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