With so much focus on sea ice and ice shelves, the role of permafrost in the global climate cycle is often not on the public's radar screen. But according to a new study published last week in the journal Bioscience, permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains more than two times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and rapid thawing could make it a significant contributor to global climate change.
Permafrost is defined as permanently frozen ground that remains at or below zero degrees Celsius for two years or longer. It contains organic material that typically decomposes slowly. But when permafrost thaws, bacteria and fungi break down the carbon contained in the organic matter much more quickly, releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane -- greenhouse gases.
The research team, led by Ted Schuur of the University of Florida, reported in Bioscience that an estimated 1,672 billion metric tons of carbon is locked up in Northern Hemisphere permafrost, compared to about 780 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. Previous studies by Schuur and his colleagues estimated the amount of carbon contained in permafrost in northeast Siberia; the new research expanded the estimate to include the permafrost-covered northern latitudes of Russia, Europe, Greenland, and North America.
According to Schuur, the amount of carbon dioxide that permafrost will add to the atmosphere depends on how fast it thaws, but his research indicates it could rise to as much as 1.1 billion tons per year if current thawing trends continue. Because plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, it might appear they could absorb the carbon 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. "You can't grow a big enough forest to offset the carbon release from the permafrost," he said.
[Via University of Florida]
This is why the global climate emergency is far greater than many scientists, politicians or the entire public understand. The positive feedback mechanisms built in to our environmental situation results in drastic changes that once set into motion cannot be overcome. Combining this release of CO2 as the earth heats up with the albedo effect from melting sea ice, means if we do not solve this issue soon, the earth will reach a point that we will never recover from. If only the Sarah Palin's of the world could understand these basic science concepts that threaten our societies...
All this proves is that carbon dioxide levels rise after ice melts morons. Your so god damn stupid that you don't realize that this proves every scientist who said carbon dioxide does not cause climate change right.
Huh? europeanguy, that doesn't make any logical sense, if you would like to site a scientific source for that let us know, but I know you don't have one, so thats ok
UNGHH! It is painful for me to hear alarmist hype that takes a scientific study and bends it to panic others.
Yes there is a massive amount of gas hydrate contained in permafrost (also in ocean beds). Yes, this is a large amount of methane. Yes, if a specific temperature/pressure thresshold is reached it might release into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. Okay, you have sent up the green flag but you didn't even use the term gas hydrate. Was it too technical for a science site? Or was it because people might do a little research on their own and find out that even by the most conservative estimates this FUEL store quite possibly contains more than TWICE the known amount of oil, coal, and gasified natural methane combined? Consider that gas hydrate has a 56:1 expansion concentration meaning that one liter of gas hydrate contains the equivalent of 56 liters of uncompressed methane. Considering that the study tended to focus more on the extreme energy potential of this technology why did you instead focus on a very subcontext of the study?
I have not heard or seen anything on this site yet as to the possibilities of the energy source of gas hydrate except for this meager coverage in a completely biased viewpoint.
I guess we just don't want to solve the energy problem.
Oh and by the way gas hydrate is cleaner than oil and coal. Who cares if it could power the future. It could possibly DESTROY THE EARTH. Of course it isn't mentioned in the article that the conditions necessary to produce a massive release of gas hydrate would already be so extreme that all life would be already gone. Okay so once global warming wipes out the earth there will be a masive gas hydrate relase that realllly makes it hot. Nice coverage POP SCI.
Even more permafrost is under the ocean. For instance, off the coast of Siberia there is an area six times the size of Germany containing about 540 billion tons of carbon. That submarine permafrost is perilously close to thawing. Three to 12 kilometers from the coast the sea sediment is just below freezing. The permafrost has grown porous, there is a loss of rigor in the frozen sea floor, and the surrounding seawater is highly oversaturated with solute methane.
"...Researchers were investigating "alarming" reports in the last few days of the release of methane from long frozen Arctic waters, possibly from the warming of the sea…" --"Arctic sea ice drops to 2nd lowest level on record," AP, 27 Aug '08
The CH4 level in the air never reached 750 parts per billion (ppb) the last million years, but is now 1,780 ppb. Currently there is about 5 billion tons of CH4 in the air; 10 billion more would be like doubling the CO2 level for 20 years. Since the future amount of CH4 (or CO2) entering the air from melting permafrost isn't known, it is not included at all in current climate models. The UN warned this year natural CH4 emissions are a major climate wild card.
"If the Siberian (submarine) permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes, the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelve fold. The result would be catastrophic global warming." --"A Storehouse of Greenhouse Gases Is Opening in Siberia," Spiegel, 17 April '08