Arctic Permafrost May Belch Huge Emissions Of Methane In The Future

Abrupt Thawing of Permafrost Beneath Arctic Lakes could Fuel Climate Change

Credit Clayton Elder

"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". Melting permafrost below the Arctic could be responsible for the quickening pace of climate change, because of possible releasing of the trapped carbon located in the frozen soil of the Arctic. These pools significantly speed up the thawing of the permafrost, which leads to food being available to microbes that consequently produce carbon dioxide and methane. "Abrupt thawing takes place under a certain type of Arctic lake, known as a thermokarst lake that forms as permafrost thaws".

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. Within my lifetime, my children's lifetime, it should be ramping up ... "It's already happening but it's not happening at a really fast rate right now, but within a few decades, it should peak." .

With an global team of researchers from U.S. and Germany, Walter Anthony used field measurements and computer models, reaching the grim conclusion: compared to previous estimations, the thawing doubles the greenhouse emissions that come from permafrost.

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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.

Additionally, researchers say that even in a future where humans reduce their global carbon emissions drastically, it might not make a difference and large methane releases from abrupt thawing of permafrost are still likely to occur.

The team used measurements and models of how climate change and melting permafrost work together, according to the paper.

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They found that thermokarst lakes formed when substantial amounts of ice in the deep soil melts to liquid water. Those gases that get released are from 2,000 to 43,000 years old and easily rise up to the surface and are released into the atmosphere. "When the lakes form, they flash-thaw these permafrost areas", said Walter Anthony, an associate professor with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center. Eternal ice under these lakes are melting instantly.

Adding computer modelling and satellite imagery from 1999 to 2014, they were able to estimate the amount of permafrost converted to thawed soil - and it's bad news there, too. "Instead of centimeters of thaw, which is common for terrestrial environments, we've seen 15 meters of thaw beneath newly formed lakes in Goldstream Valley within the past 60 years". So after a few decades people may face negative consequences.

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

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"You can't stop the release of carbon from these lakes once they form", Walter Anthony said.

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