Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


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

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:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>