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Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon – Tim Radford

Three sets of scientists in the same week have helped narrow the uncertainties about how the natural world will respond to extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Carbon locked in the frozen earth will escape gradually as the Arctic permafrost melts – but the scientists say the process could accelerate.

As greenhouse gas levels soar, and soils warm, and plant roots tap down into the carbon stored there by centuries of ancient growth, they will release potent chemicals that will accelerate microbial attack – and speed up the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The soil carbon cycle is one of the great headaches of climate science. And the Arctic is the first place to look for answers about it, and about how the Earth and oceans that store atmospheric carbon will respond to global warming.

Locked away

Around half of the world’s buried organic carbon is locked away in the soils of the northern circumpolar permafrost, and this huge vault of deep-frozen peat and leaf litter – more than 1,000 billion metric tonnes in the top three metres, at the latest estimate − contains twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere.

But the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, so what will happen as the permafrost thaws and plants begin to move north? Would it all be surrendered to the atmosphere in one devastating exhalation, triggering an explosion in global warming and causing trillions of dollars in economic damage?

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