Global warming: USGS researchers quantify potential greenhouse gas releases from melting Arctic permafrost

Staggering amounts of nitrogen and carbon could lead to runaway warming in coming decades

Permafrost melting is expected to increase in coming decades.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say they’ve quantified the amount of greenhouse gases that could be released into the atmosphere as Arctic permafrost starts to melt.

“This study quantifies the impact on Earth’s two most important chemical cycles, carbon and nitrogen, from thawing of permafrost under future climate warming scenarios,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “While the permafrost of the polar latitudes may seem distant and disconnected from the daily activities of most of us, its potential to alter the planet’s habitability when destabilized is very real.”

As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today.

The release of carbon and nitrogen in permafrost could exacerbate the warming phenomenon and will impact water systems on land and offshore according to USGS scientists and their domestic and international collaborators.

The previously unpublished nitrogen figure is useful for scientists who are making climate predictions with computer climate models, while the carbon estimate is consistent and gives more credence to other scientific studies with similar carbon estimates.

To generate the estimates, scientists studied how permafrost-affected soils, known as Gelisols, thaw under various climate scenarios. They found that all Gelisols are not alike: Some have soil materials that are very peaty, with lots of decaying organic matter that burns easily — these will impart newly thawed nitrogen into the ecosystem and atmosphere.

Other Gelisols have materials that are very nutrient rich — these will impart a lot of nitrogen into the ecosystem. All Gelisols will contribute carbon dioxide and likely some methane into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition once the permafrost thaws. These gases will contribute to warming. What was frozen for thousands of years will enter our ecosystems and atmosphere as a new contributor.

“The scientific community researching this phenomena has made these international data available for the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As permafrost receives more attention, we are sharing our data and our insights to guide those models as they portray how the land, atmosphere, and ocean interact,” said study lead Jennifer Harden, USGS Research Soil Scientist.

The article, Field information links permafrost carbon to physical vulnerabilities of thawing, was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


One thought on “Global warming: USGS researchers quantify potential greenhouse gas releases from melting Arctic permafrost

  1. For context,

    Natural METHANE sources

    –20X the GH Gas CO2 ever dreamt of being!–

    include wetlands, wildfires or mud volcanoes.

    (from “Wikipedia; mud volcanoes”–)

    “2003: Achim J. Kopf estimated 1.97×1011 to 1.23×1014 m³ of methane is released by all MUD VOLCANOES per year, of which 4.66×107 to 3.28×1011 m³ is from surface volcanoes.[5] “

    Converted, that’s 141–88 billion-metric-tonnes/yr
    from all mud volcanoes, alone!
    (These are not usually the explosive events
    we tend to think of as “volcanoes”!)

    “Wikipedia” lists the 2008 Man-Made CO2 estimates
    at just 30 billion tonnes/yr.

    “The data only considers carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement manufacture…”
    “…but not emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry.”


    Worse still, there’s all those natural methane leaks
    off the coast of CA, OR and AK (…that I know of)
    plus, the deep seas vents…

    My point?

    FAPP, Mankind had ZERO leverage upon
    creating the GH Effect.
    Again, Mankind has
    almost none on the Arctic seeps,
    unless we get busy,
    start harvesting/storing/converting
    from liquid fuels/coal to
    this relatively efficient, clean-burning fuel

    as it has for the last 11,400 years.

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