20,000-Year-Old Carbon could be Released into the Environment as Arctic Defrosts

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Thawing permafrost in the Arctic (photo: John McConnico, AP)

Current global warming projections may have to be revised if scientists studying the Arctic are correct about the volume of ancient carbon that may be released into the atmosphere.


Rising temperatures are causing the Arctic’s permafrost, a carbon-rich soil that has been frozen for 20,000 years, to thaw, according to a team of researchers from the United States, Europe and Russia. If all of the permafrost becomes exposed, it could release more than 10 times the amount of carbon than has been discharged into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Aron Stubbins said. The carbon deposit in the Arctic is so great it would represent two and a half times more carbon than already exists in the atmosphere today.


This carbon release could create a positive feedback loop, in which the carbon release would amplify climate warming, which would cause more permafrost to thaw and release more carbon, and so on.


Those studying the permafrost carbon say some current climate change projections haven’t taken into account the potential release of Arctic carbon, making it imperative to revise such models.


The carbon released by the melting permafrost hasn’t even been a part of the ecosystem for 20,000 years. “If you cut down a tree and burn it, you are simply returning the carbon in that tree to the atmosphere where the tree originally got it,” Stubbins said. “However, this is carbon that has been locked away in a deep-freeze storage for a long time. This is carbon that has been out of the active, natural system for tens of thousands of years. To reintroduce it into the contemporary system will have an effect.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Warming Climate May Release Vast Amounts Of Carbon From Long-Frozen Arctic Soils (by Michael Sullivan, UGA Today)

Detecting the Signature of Permafrost Thaw in Arctic Rivers (by Robert G. M. Spencer, Paul J. Mann, Thorsten Dittmar, Timothy I. Eglinton, Cameron McIntyre, R. Max Holmes, Nikita Zimov and Aron Stubbins, Geophysical Research Letters) (abstract)

The Fun Side of Global Warming: Yachties Plan Race Through Arctic Ocean from New York to British Columbia (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Russia’s First Shipment of Arctic Oil to Europe Arrives in Netherlands (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NASA Study: Arctic Warming Causing Ocean to Emit Harmful Methane Gas (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


anonamouse 9 years ago
Well, yes, all the climate models are clearly faulty. Gin up some new ones, test 'em for a couple of decades, and get back to us. .... Now, from the Department of Beating a Dead Horse: you do realize, don't you dear editors, that the Evil One is not "carbon," as you repeatedly characterize it, it is CO2. The former is a particulate, the latter a gas --- they are not synonymous, not the same thing at all, but should we expect scientific sophistication hereabouts? Not if all we ever get is "spin." Substituting the wrong term for the right one because of its emotional effect is simply spin. You can't claim to be serious journalists and do this stuff.

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