Scientists will be sharpening their pencils again, now that researchers have discovered that thawing soil in the arctic permafrost is a new significant source of carbon (500 Gigatons over next century, or sooner) which has not been accounted for in most climate models.
Permafrost, permanently frozen soil, isn't staying frozen and a type of soil called loess contained deep within thawing permafrost may be releasing significant, and previously unaccounted for, amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, according to authors of a paper published this week in the journal Science.
Preliminary assessments by scientists from Russia, the University of Florida, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks indicate that loess permafrost, which covers more than a million square kilometers in Siberia and Alaska, is a large carbon reservoir with the potential to be a significant contributor of atmospheric carbon, yet it is seldom incorporated into analyses of changes in global carbon reservoirs.
"The unique aspect of the Siberian loess permafrost is that it is quite deep - 20 to 40 meters - and has a surprisingly high carbon concentration at depth for a mineral soil," said Terry Chapin, co-author from the Institute of Arctic Biology at UAF. "This paper explains the processes that led to the accumulation of large amounts of soil carbon and the processes that could lead to its return to the atmosphere."
The largest carbon reservoir on Earth is:
- the ocean, which scientists estimate holds about 40,000 gigatons (Gt);
- soils contain about 2,500 Gt and
- vegetation holds about 650 Gt.
- loess, according to the authors, about 500 Gt of carbon are contained in the thaw-threatened loess, also called yedoma, of Siberia and Alaska.
- N.B compared to the above, humans only add 5-6 Gt of carbon to the reservior, through burning fossil fuels and industrialization ( A 1995 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that some 90 billion tons of carbon as carbon dioxide annually circulate between the earth's ocean and the atmosphere, and another 60 billion tons exchange between the vegetation and the atmosphere. Compared to man-made sources' emission of about 5 to 6 billion tons per year, the natural sources would then account for more than 95 percent of all atmospheric carbon dioxide)
"I was surprised, because it is unusual to find major new large carbon stocks," Chapin said. "We have spent more than five years discussing among ourselves all the details of the calculations, because initially I did not believe that the pool could be both so large and so decomposible (once thawed)."
Permafrost has been seldom incorporated into global carbon budgets in part because the "... size of the carbon pool was so poorly quantified ... and in part because global data bases for soils have been standardized to provide data only for the top meter of soil," Chapin said. "People know about carbon in permafrost - it's not a trivial amount," said Ted Schuur, co-author from the University of Florida. "Normally, scientists look for carbon in the upper layers of permafrost where organic matter decomposes."
Laboratory and field experiments by the scientists demonstrate that the organic matter in yedoma decomposes quickly when it is thawed and produces rates of carbon release similar to those of productive northern grassland soils.
"If these rates continue as field observations suggest, most carbon in recently thawed yedoma will be released within a century - a striking contrast to the preservation of carbon for tens of thousands of years when frozen in permafrost," state the authors.
See original press release
[one has to wonder: will airborne methane (CH4) and CO2 capture and sequestration using Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) and other advanced, yet to be invented nanotechnology be a viable technology within 100 years ? a methane magnet? Methane, CH4, is a greenhouse gas and the primary gas in the Kyoto protocol. Large increases in methane concentration are observed since the pre-industrial age (a 150% increase, from 750 to 1750 ppb). CO2 levels now are about 380 ppm--Walter Derzko]
Map of current global methane emissions
Related post: Smart Wired Tundra Toilets for Alaska
Also see Arctic permafrost set to disappear over next century "Nearly 90% of the permafrost in Arctic soils could melt, and the run-off could alter global currents and accelerate global warming." 04 February 2006
and Climate warning as Siberia melts "The world's largest frozen peat bog is melting. An area stretching for a million square kilometres across the permafrost of western Siberia is turning into a mass of shallow lakes as the ground melts, according to Russian researchers just back from the region. The sudden melting of a bog the size of France and Germany combined could unleash billions of tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere." 11 August 2005;
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