Scientists have long speculated that one of the saving graces of thawing permafrost would be the ability of new growth to absorb greenhouse gasses. The latest evaluation suggests that is an overly optimisitc assumption
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As permafrost thaws, goes one prediction, it will release billions of tonnes of carbon that is currently frozen in the soil, making a major contribution to global warming.
Another, more optimistic, read is that as temperatures rise, it will lead to improved growing conditions in the Arctic. Instead of contributing to warming temperatures, the Arctic, thanks to increased amounts of vegetation, would become what is known as a carbon sink, absorbing more carbon from the atmosphere than the thawing ground releases.
Determining which scenario is more likely is more than just an academic discussion amongst scientists. Knowing what role thawing permafrost will play will help improve predictions of how much carbon will be in the atmosphere in the medium and long-term, and how this could affect climate change.
If permafrost winds up being a net contributor – as the opinion of 98 experts contributing to a recent paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters seems to indicate – the amount of carbon that stands to be released from the soil could be significant.
That is because permafrost holds more carbon than is currently found in the air. As the ground thaws that carbon will be released in three ways, the scientists say. Firstly, through increased wildfires; secondly, through increased leeching into coastal waters, either by being carried by rivers or through coastal erosion. And, finally, by directly releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as organic material breaks down.
The group of scientists concludes that the most likely scenario is that increasing vegetation will not offset the increased carbon release, and that, by 2100, the Arctic will become a source of atmospheric carbon.
Their optimistic read of the Arctic’s role in climate change, they say, is based on a failure to consider the amount of carbon that could be released in wildfires and leeched out of the soil.
Due to a lack of scientific studies of the processes that are at play in permafrost thawing, the scientists note that they are offering their best estimate of the most likely scenario.
However, given the known amount of carbon stored in soil that is currently frozen, they forecast that, by the end of the century, the amount of carbon released from Arctic rivers and collapsing coastlines could increase by 75%. The amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by burning could increase by a factor of four.
But, rather than it being a case of permafrost being either a carbon source or ca arbon sink, the scientists point out, it will be both-and. The amount of vegetation in the Arctic will increase as temperatures rise and the ground thaws, but since carbon release is more sensitive to warming temperatures, they predict it increase at a faster pace. The Arctic will be a sink, but it will be one that constantly overflows.