Global warming may decimate the top 10 feet (3 meters) or more of perennially frozen soil across the Northern Hemisphere, altering ecosystems as well as damaging buildings and roads across Canada, Alaska, and Russia. New simulations from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) show that over half of the area covered by this topmost layer of permafrost could thaw by 2050 and as much as 90 percent by 2100. Scientists expect the thawing to increase runoff to the Arctic Ocean and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Regions containing permafrost within the top 11 feet of soil could decrease by as much as 90% across the Arctic over the next century, based on simulations by the NCAR Community Climate System Model. Shown are areas with near-surface permafrost in the CCSM simulations for 1980-1999 (light blue) and 2080-2099 (dark blue). The latter projection is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes A1B emissions scenario, often called the "business as usual" scenario. (Image courtesy David Lawrence.)
This sinkhole near Fairbanks, Alaska, formed due to the melting of a large ice pocket within permafrost that is gradually thawing as temperatures warm. (Photo courtesy Vladimir Romanovsky, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks.)
The study, using the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model (CCSM), is the first to examine the state of permafrost in a global model that includes interactions among the atmosphere, ocean, land, and sea ice as well as a soil model that depicts freezing and thawing. Results appear online in the December 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
"People have used models to study permafrost before, but not within a fully interactive climate system model," says NCARs David Lawrence, the lead author. The coauthor is Andrew Slater of the University of Colorados National Snow and Ice Data Center.
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