It was once thought that northern Arctic permafrost would remain impervious to the negative effects of climate change, due to the extreme weather conditions in the area. However, that might not be the case after all, as a new study led by NASA scientists suggests that the permafrost could possibly thaw in the decades and centuries to come, releasing carbon that will likely further exacerbate the problem of global warming.
In a news release posted Monday on the NASA website, the space agency discussed the findings from the study led by Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Nicholas Parazoo and published in the journal The Cryosphere, which suggested that the “peak transition” in which Arctic permafrost in the northern part of the region will thaw might take place in about four to six decades from now. Warmer permafrost regions in the south are expected to become a source of carbon by the end of the 22nd century, and while these areas are presently thawing, other climate processes in the Arctic are still able to nullify the thawing effect at the moment.
All in all, the researchers expect that in about 300 years from now, carbon emissions in the northern Arctic alone will be 10 times greater than the sum of all man-made fossil fuel emissions in 2016.
In a statement, Parazoo explained that his team didn’t expect to discover that northern Arctic permafrost would potentially transition considerably sooner than the permafrost in the warmer Southern regions.
“Permafrost in southern Alaska and southern Siberia is already thawing, so it’s obviously more vulnerable. Some of the very cold, stable permafrost in the highest latitudes in Alaska and Siberia appeared to be sheltered from extreme climate change, and we didn’t expect much impact over the next couple hundred years.”
The researchers came up with their findings by using soil temperature data from Alaska and Siberia, as well as a modeling system from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which determines how carbon emissions change in relation to the growth of plants and thawing of permafrost due to climate change. While the northern Arctic is known to have considerably more permafrost than the south, the researchers found that permafrost in that area is likely to lose about five times more carbon than southern Arctic permafrost, based on the forecasts suggested by the NCAR’s numerical model.
According to Parazoo, this was because plants grew “much faster than expected” in the south over the course of the simulations. NASA further explained that the process of photosynthesis allows plants to remove carbon dioxide from the air; in this case, increased photosynthesis could counter the carbon released by southern Arctic permafrost until the late 2100s.
As explained in The Guardian’s “ultimate climate change FAQ,” permafrost is the term used for any soil that remains below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for a span of over two years. Commonly found in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, permafrost is typical of high-latitude or highly elevated mountainous regions, and could vary in thickness depending on the region’s climate. At its most prominent, permafrost could be as thick as several hundreds of feet.