Thawing Permafrost Could Set World on Runaway Warming

To be honest, this is not a surprise to me — I’ve read many hints of this for years, and most climate science predictions, in general, seem to be too conservative (i.e. end up modeling slower warming than actually occurs). But, this new study has made the rounds on major media sites and blogs around the world for a reason, it is concerning. (Update: I just realized, after publishing this, how appropriate a cartoon I shared last night — below — fits this story, so adding it in.)

climate humpty dumpty cartoon

From the Nature article, “Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw,” which is an analysis of 41 scientists who public academic articles on various aspects of the permafrost, here’s the gist of the news:

Arctic temperatures are rising fast, and permafrost is thawing…. Our collective estimate is that carbon will be released more quickly than models suggest, and at levels that are cause for serious concern.

We calculate that permafrost thaw will release the same order of magnitude of carbon as deforestation if current rates of deforestation continue. But because these emissions include significant quantities of methane, the overall effect on climate could be 2.5 times larger.

(Note that methane is about 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.)

“The implication is sobering. Whatever target we set for atmospheric CO2, this new research means we will need to work harder to reach it,” lead author, ecologist Edward Schuur of the University of Florida, wrote. “…when carbon starts being emitted from the permafrost, you can’t immediately say, ‘OK, we’ve had enough of this, let’s just stop doing it,’ because it’s a natural cycle emitting carbon whether you like it or not. Once we start pushing it, it’s going to be releasing under its own dynamic.”

If you haven’t heard about this before, the Arctic (permafrost, in particular) is packed full of carbon, and when record temperatures swoop in and melt this “permanent” frost, a lot of that carbon is released as methane. This is what allows scientists (and others, I’m sure) to light methane fires like in the video below (which I shared back in January when discussing this matter):

Thinking, “Oh, there can’t be too much carbon sitting in the permafrost, can there?” Think again! The amount of carbon packed into the permafrostis about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now.

Is that not concerning enough for you? Get a load of additional issues our leading climate scientists have still been too conservative about, via Dr. Joe Romm:

The carbon is locked in a freezer in the part of the planet warming up the fastest (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“).  Countless studies make clear that global warming will release vast quantities of GHGs into the atmosphere this decade.  Yet, no climate model currently incorporates the amplifying feedback from methane released by a defrosting tundra.

The new analysis is based on a survey of “41 international scientists, listed as authors here, who publish on various aspects of permafrost.”  Yet even this new paper is conservative.  Their worst-case scenario appears to be derived from the out-of-date 2007 IPCC report, whereby Arctic warming “only” hits 7.5°C [13.5°F] by 2100.  And the new article further assumes temperature is then held constant for the next 200 years.

More recent analyses make clear that business-as-usual warming — not worst-case –  is likely to be considerably higher (see, for instance, “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F“).  And the Earth would continue warming well past 2100, perhaps 50% to 100% more.

One last point.  This article only looked at the land-based permafrost.  Let’s remember the study from last year:

Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting:  NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”Methane and carbon release from the Arctic is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. This research finds a key “lid” on “the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir” near Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”

The people out there who think R&D or an energy quest is going to stop us from multiple catastrophes are deluding themselves and others. We need to start aggressive mitigation now as every major independent study concludes.

No, we can’t wish away human-induced global warming and climate change. And the more we try to do so, without address the core problems, the more climate problems we’re going to leave our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and even see ourselves within the coming decades).

Sources: Climate Progress & University of Florida

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