While climatologists are carefully watching carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, another group of scientists is exploring a massive storehouse of carbon that has the potential to significantly affect the climate change picture.
University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Aron Stubbins is part of a team investigating how ancient carbon, locked away in Arctic permafrost for thousands of years, is now being transformed into carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere. The results of the study were published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The Arctic contains a massive amount of carbon in the form of frozen soil--the remnants of plants and animals that died more than 20,000 years ago. Because this organic material was permanently frozen year-round, it did not undergo decomposition by bacteria the way organic material does in a warmer climate. Just like food in a home freezer, it has been locked away from the bacteria that would otherwise cause it to decay and be converted to carbon dioxide.
"However, if you allow your food to defrost, eventually bacteria will eat away at it, causing it to decompose and release carbon dioxide," Stubbins said. "The same thing happens to permafrost when it thaws."
Scientists estimate there is more than 10 times the amount of carbon in the Arctic soil than has been put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution. To look at it another way, scientists estimate there is two and a half times more carbon locked away in the Arctic deep freezer than there is in the atmosphere today. Now, with a warming climate, that deep freezer is beginning to thaw and that long-frozen carbon is beginning to be released into the environment.
"The study we did was to look at what happens to that organic carbon when it is released," Stubbins said. "Does it get converted to carbon dioxide or is it still going to be preserved in some other form?"
Stubbins and his colleagues conducted their fieldwork at Duvanni Yar in Siberia. There, the Kolyma River carves into a bank of permafrost, exposing the frozen organic material. This worked well for the scientists, as they were able to find streams that consisted of 100 percent thawed permafrost. The researchers measured the carbon concentration, how old the carbon was and what forms of carbon were present in the water. They bottled it with a sample of the local microbes. After two weeks, they measured the changes in the carbon concentration and composition and the amount of carbon dioxide that had been produced.
"We found that decomposition converted 60 percent of the carbon in the thawed permafrost to carbon dioxide in two weeks," Stubbins said. "This shows the permafrost carbon is definitely in a form that can be used by the microbes."
Lead author Robert Spencer of Florida State University added, "Interestingly, we also found that the unique composition of thawed permafrost carbon is what makes the material so attractive to microbes."
The study also confirmed what the scientists had suspected: The carbon being used by the bacteria is at least 20,000 years old. This is significant because it means that carbon has not been a part of the global carbon cycle in the recent past.
"If you cut down a tree and burn it, you are simply returning the carbon in that tree to the atmosphere where the tree originally got it," Stubbins said. "However, this is carbon that has been locked away in a deep-freeze storage for a long time.
"This is carbon that has been out of the active, natural system for tens of thousands of years. To reintroduce it into the contemporary system will have an effect."
The carbon release has the potential to create what scientists call a positive feedback loop. This means as more carbon is released into the atmosphere, it would amplify climate warming. That, in turn, would cause more permafrost to thaw and release more carbon, causing the cycle to continue.
"Currently, this is not a process that shows up in future (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate projections; in fact, permafrost is not even accounted for," Spencer said.
"Moving forward, we need to find out how consistent our findings are and to work with a broader range of scientists to better predict how fast this process will happen," Stubbins said.
In addition to Stubbins and Spencer, the research team included Paul Mann from Northumbria University, United Kingdom; Thorsten Dittmar from the University of Oldenburg, Germany; Timothy Eglinton and Cameron McIntyre from the Geological Institute, Zurich, Switzerland; Max Holmes from Woods Hole Research Center; and Nikita Zimov from the Far-Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Science.
Skidaway Institute of Oceanography
The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography is a research unit of the University of Georgia located on Skidaway Island near Savannah. The mission of the institute is to provide the state of Georgia with a nationally and internationally recognized center of excellence in marine science through research and education. For more information, see http://www.
Mike Sullivan | EurekAlert!
A new dead zone in the Indian Ocean could impact future marine nutrient balance
06.12.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für marine Mikrobiologie
NASA's AIM observes early noctilucent ice clouds over Antarctica
05.12.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
06.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
06.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
06.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering