DATE: February 5, 2020
SNIP: Permafrost in Canada, Alaska and Siberia is abruptly crumbling in ways that could release large stores of greenhouse gases more quickly than anticipated, researchers have warned.
Scientists have long fretted that climate change – which has heated Arctic and subarctic regions at double the global rate – will release planet-warming CO2 and methane that has remained safely locked inside Earth’s frozen landscapes for millennia.
It was assumed this process would be gradual, leaving humanity time to draw down carbon emissions enough to prevent permafrost thaw from tipping into a self-perpetuating vicious circle of ice melt and global warming.
But a study published on Monday in Nature Geoscience says projections of how much carbon would be released by this kind of slow-and-steady thawing overlook a less well-known process whereby certain types of icy terrain disintegrate suddenly – sometimes within days.
“Although abrupt permafrost thawing will occur in less than 20 percent of frozen land, it increases permafrost carbon release projections by about 50 percent,” said lead author Merritt Turetsky, head of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado.
“Under all future warming scenarios, abrupt thaw leads to net carbon losses into the atmosphere,” she told AFP.
Current climate models do not account for the possibility of rapid permafrost collapse and the amount of gases it might release, the study notes.
Abrupt thawing is “fast and dramatic”, Merritt said, adding: “Forests can become lakes in the course of a month, landslides can occur with no warning, and invisible methane seep holes can swallow snowmobiles whole.”