Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Bad sign for global warming: Thawing permafrost holds vast carbon pool

05.09.2008
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."

Ted Schuur | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ufl.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Multi-year submarine-canyon study challenges textbook theories about turbidity currents
12.12.2017 | Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

nachricht How do megacities impact coastal seas? Searching for evidence in Chinese marginal seas
11.12.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Ostseeforschung Warnemünde

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Long-lived storage of a photonic qubit for worldwide teleportation

MPQ scientists achieve long storage times for photonic quantum bits which break the lower bound for direct teleportation in a global quantum network.

Concerning the development of quantum memories for the realization of global quantum networks, scientists of the Quantum Dynamics Division led by Professor...

Im Focus: Electromagnetic water cloak eliminates drag and wake

Detailed calculations show water cloaks are feasible with today's technology

Researchers have developed a water cloaking concept based on electromagnetic forces that could eliminate an object's wake, greatly reducing its drag while...

Im Focus: Scientists channel graphene to understand filtration and ion transport into cells

Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.

To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...

Im Focus: Towards data storage at the single molecule level

The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...

Im Focus: Successful Mechanical Testing of Nanowires

With innovative experiments, researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrums Geesthacht and the Technical University Hamburg unravel why tiny metallic structures are extremely strong

Light-weight and simultaneously strong – porous metallic nanomaterials promise interesting applications as, for instance, for future aeroplanes with enhanced...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

See, understand and experience the work of the future

11.12.2017 | Event News

Innovative strategies to tackle parasitic worms

08.12.2017 | Event News

AKL’18: The opportunities and challenges of digitalization in the laser industry

07.12.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Gecko adhesion technology moves closer to industrial uses

13.12.2017 | Information Technology

Columbia engineers create artificial graphene in a nanofabricated semiconductor structure

13.12.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Research reveals how diabetes in pregnancy affects baby's heart

13.12.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>