Arctic Permafrost May Belch Huge Emissions Of Methane In The Future

Permafrost thaw may accelerate, and it is more devastating and potent than scientists originally thought.

Arctic permafrost
Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Permafrost thaw may accelerate, and it is more devastating and potent than scientists originally thought.

A NASA funded study has recently determined that a relatively little-known process called abrupt thawing may pose a serious threat to the planet. Making matters worse, it’s a threat that may happen sooner than was previously believed.

Per NASA, the phenomenon of abrupt thawing and its associated dangers to the Earth were detailed in a study published in Nature Communications. The results of the NASA backed research were obtained by a part of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). ABoVE was a ten-year program that was formed to better understand the effects of climate change on the Arctic region of the Earth.

Some Background

As the Arctic warms, some of its lakes are bubbling. The planet’s warming climate is also thawing the Arctic’s permafrost, a soil that is typically frozen year-round. Most of the world’s permafrost is found in areas of high latitudes, usually in close proximity to the Antarctic and Arctic regions.

Also germane to the discussion is the fact that this region under the Arctic landscape contains a huge reserve of organic carbon that has, until recently, been safely contained by the frozen soil of the permafrost. However, a process begins in the event that the permafrost thaws out — soil microbes located in the permafrost convert the carbon into carbon dioxide and methane. This byproduct then enters into the atmosphere and contributes to climate warming, researchers say.

A Potential for Disaster

One key point to keep in mind is that methane is a greenhouse gas that is 22 times stronger than carbon dioxide, and the carbon has already started to leach into the atmosphere as the planet’s climate continues to heat up. Microbes are waking up and digesting this organic material that has been frozen for centuries.

Researchers remain concerned that this process could be damaging to Earth’s atmosphere.

“The arctic permafrost’s expected gradual thawing and the associated release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may actually be sped up by instances of a relatively little known process called abrupt thawing. Abrupt thawing takes place under a certain type of Arctic lake, known as a thermokarst lake that forms as permafrost thaws.”

In the case of these newly-formed lakes, the permafrost will thaw deeper and more rapidly. If this happens, the thermokarst lakes may soon be a major source of an influx of methane into our atmosphere. The mechanism of this rapid thawing process indicates that this ancient carbon releases 125 to 190 percent faster than it does from simple, gradual thawing by itself.

The Timeline

We won’t have to wait two to three hundred years to witness these large emissions either, claims the primary author of the study, Katey Walter Anthony. She says that the large releases of permafrost carbon will happen in her lifetime and continue throughout the generations to come. She goes on to point out that the releases aren’t happening at a fast rate at the moment, “but within a few decades, they should peak.”

The findings also suggest that — even if we reduce global carbon emissions as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — large methane releases from the process of abrupt thawing are likely to occur. In a nutshell, whether we are successful at curbing global carbon emissions or continue business as usual, it won’t make a difference.

Additionally, Walter Antony and a group of U.S. and German researchers used field measurements and computer models to determine “that abrupt thawing more than doubles previous estimates of permafrost-derived greenhouse warming.”