Permafrost Melting Could Add Huge Amounts Of Green House Gases To Atmosphere

Joe Romm, one of the hardest working climate change reporters, has come across a scary new study just published in Nature. It finds that higher average temperatures are contributing to permafrost melting in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions faster than previously thought. Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does today. If all of it melted, it would be equivalent to taking all the oil in the Alberta tar sands and burning it at once.

Permafrost melting in Arctic
In this so-called “drunken forest,” in Alaska, the trees tilt because the permafrost is melting. CREDIT: NSIDC.

Permafrost, or tundra, is soil that stays below freezing for at least two years. Normally, plants capture carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis. Then they slowly release that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere after they die. The Arctic acts like a very large carbon freezer, which keeps the decomposition rate very low. That is changing, according to the report. Romm writes in Think Progress, “We are leaving the freezer door wide open. The tundra is being transformed from a long term carbon locker to a short-term carbon unlocker.”

The study finds that for every 1° C global temperatures rise, a quarter of the world’s permafrost will melt, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Those gases, in turn, will contribute to more warming which will lead inevitably to more permafrost melting and more gas emissions as part of a disastrous feedback loop. It estimates that the gases trapped in the permafrost today could raise global temperatures 1.5º C all by themselves.

That’s why Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the Paris climate change agreements are so dangerous, says Romm. In fact, they may put the permafrost  — and hence the ability of the earth to support human habitation — beyond the point of no return. If we can limit total warming to the 1.5° C target identified in the Paris deal, that would save 800,000 square miles of permafrost compared to 2° C of warming. But if the Trump administration succeeds in thwarting Paris, fully one half of the permafrost may melt with cataclysmic consequences.

The study concludes with this observation: “Huge permafrost thaw can be limited by ambitious climate targets.” And that means huge permafrost thaw and significantly higher global temperatures will most likely result if those targets are undermined. Ambitious climate targets in the age of Trump? The United States wants no part of that.

Source: Think Progress

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