By Jenasie R. Woebbeking
About a quarter of the Arctic regions are covered in permafrost which is frozen ground that has been frozen for two years or more consecutively. Permafrost contains organic matter that is made up of dead plants, animals, and microbes that have been stored for thousands of years. Due to climate change, the Arctic is beginning to warm causing the permafrost to thaw, releasing the decomposition of these organic materials as either carbon dioxide or methane. Without the proper tools and resources, scientists are not sure how much methane or carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere due to this thaw which causes great concern. Since both of these gases are heat-trapping (methane more than carbon dioxide), it leads to a feedback loop that will turn the Arctic into a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. Governments need to come together and fund scientists to complete new studies on how much carbon and what form of carbon will be released into the atmosphere due to permafrost thaw, so they know what actions need to be taken to mitigate the thaw.
Keywords: permafrost thaw, carbon dioxide, methane, arctic, climate change, heat-trapping, research, mitigate
Permafrost Thaw: How Much Methane Is Being Released?
Climate change has been a growing issue for many years. Our climate is warming fast and without an attempt to stop it, we will face detrimental effects of climate change in the future that will not be reversible. Permafrost thaw is one thing that will become irreversible once it begins. Permafrost is frozen ground that has been frozen for at least two or more years consecutively in a row. According to Denchak (2018), permafrost covers about a quarter of the northern hemisphere and extends to beneath the Earth’s surface from a few feet to more than a mile. Permafrost is full of thousands of years of life which causes it to be one of the great stores of global greenhouse gases.
The Arctic is warming at twice the speed as the rest of the Earth which is a great cause for concern. According to Schaefer (2022), “As the Earth warms, scientists worry that some of the carbon in permafrost could escape to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane”. Methane is a more powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which in turn will warm the planet faster if released into the atmosphere (Plumer 2011). The issue we face is that scientists are not sure exactly how much carbon is stored in permafrost currently and how much of that carbon will be released as methane. Without governments providing more funding to complete new studies of how much methane will be released into the atmosphere, there is not much we can plan to do to slow down the effects that permafrost thaw will have on global warming.
Everything We Need To Know About Permafrost Thaw
Permafrost is found on land and beneath the ocean floor, in areas where temperatures rarely rise above freezing. It is known to be found in Arctic regions such as Greenland, Alaska, Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. According to Denchack (2018), “Permafrost in the Arctic alone is estimated to hold nearly twice as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere now, as well as a sizable amount of methane.” Permafrost acts like a giant freezer on Earth that keeps a large amount of organic matter frozen. This organic matter includes remains of dead animals, plants, and microbes that were frozen into the ground thousands of years ago. The warming of our climate puts this frozen ground at risk, causing it to thaw not melt which triggers microbes to decompose this organic matter releasing carbon into the atmosphere as either carbon dioxide or methane (Schadel 2020). Once this matter is decomposed and releases carbon, there is no gaining it back. Overall, this makes permafrost thaw irreversible and defines it as a tipping point. As the thawing of permafrost releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – melting even more carbon as it is warming the Earth- an unstoppable feedback loop may occur which could turn the Arctic from a carbon sink into a carbon source (Denchak 2018).
The Arctic is considered a carbon sink due to the growing season. The growing season in the Arctic lasts longer when the temperature rises, and warming is taking place. During the longer growing season, the plants have a longer period of time to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and since plants use the carbon in the air to grow it also sometimes acts as a fertilizer. This then causes plants to grow more quickly and absorb even more carbon. As of now, the plants in the Arctic absorb more carbon during the growing season than they release through decay. So, due to this process, the Arctic behaves as a carbon sink. As the Earth continues to warm, however, and permafrost thaws, the Arctic will act more as a source of carbon than a sink. Once the Arctic emits more carbon than it absorbs due to permafrost thaw, it will lead to increased warming which ultimately means more permafrost thaw and methane release, giving us a feedback loop (Schaefer 2022).
Abrupt Permafrost Thaw
The Arctic’s permafrost thawing and release of greenhouse gases due to this thawing may be sped up by instances of a process called abrupt thawing. Thermokarst lakes are formed when a large amount of ice deep within the soil melts into water. Abrupt thawing takes place under these Arctic lakes (Gray 2018). This abrupt thaw may only cover 5 percent of the Arctic permafrost but that will likely be enough to double permafrost’s overall contribution to the warming of the planet (Welch 2020). According to Federman (2021), “While thermokarst lakes make up only a small percentage of the Arctic landmass, they could be a significant source of added methane”. Federman also explains that if these methane emissions were included in models currently, the numbers from permafrost thaw would double over the next eighty years.
With methane being a more drastic heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it is important that we learn just how much could be released due to the thaw of permafrost. The release of methane will cause the Earth’s climate to keep warming, causing more permafrost to thaw and more carbon to be released. It is a cause-and-effect loop of the warming feeding the warming and a problem that we will not be able to reverse once it begins. For the time being, models that do project permafrost carbon release are only showing and accounting for gradual permafrost thaw and not abrupt thaw but there are recent estimates that show that abrupt thaw may double the release of carbon (Schadel 2020).
Studies of Methane Release Due to Permafrost Thaw
Scientists have a pretty good idea that there is more than twice the amount of carbon stored in the Arctic soil than what humans have already released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, researchers do not know how much carbon may be released over time due to permafrost thaw and if it will take the form of methane or carbon dioxide (Federman 2021). The carbon released from permafrost thaw has never been an issue of concern as it is supposed to be permanently frozen ground, but now it is time to worry. As of right now, there is only one thing that is for certain: if we can keep temperatures from rising in the Arctic, the more permafrost will stay frozen. That is a very far stretch as the Arctic is already warming faster than the rest of the Earth. Right now, there is just too much ground covered in permafrost that cannot be seen. Unlike Arctic sea ice which can be measured by satellite, scientists and researchers barely have the tools to measure what is going on with permafrost (Welch 2020). Since gradual permafrost has not been taken into account by the IPCC, it is safe to say abrupt thaw has not either. Although both are bad and lead to the release of dangerously warming greenhouse gases, abrupt thawing accelerates the threat. Without knowing how much of these greenhouse gases will be released, it is hard to predict what may happen to our planet due to permafrost thaw. It is safe to say the outcome will not be good, especially if we reach an irreversible point of carbon release into the atmosphere. Without a proper solution to this issue, we could be facing a dangerous increase in the effects global warming will have on our planet.
Since permafrost thaw and abrupt thaw are not being thought about or properly accounted for in the bookkeeping, we are not aiming for the right target to mitigate climate change. The planet as a whole needs world leaders to take action and help fund new studies to be done on the research of how much carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere and what form it will take when released. Scientists and researchers need the proper tools and resources viable for studying the parts of the northern hemisphere that are covered in permafrost as well as the thermokarst lakes. Once scientists are able to further study the release of carbon from thawing permafrost, we will have a better idea of how to handle it and hopefully stop the feedback loop it could cause and potentially even put a stop to the thaw.
Denchak, M. (2019, November 21). Permafrost: Everything you need to know. NRDC. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/permafrost-everything-you-need-know
Federman, A. (2021, December 14). Abrupt permafrost thaw has scientists worried. Sierra Club. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/abrupt-permafrost-thaw-has-scientists-worried
Gray, E. (2018, August 20). Unexpected future boost of methane possible from Arctic Permafrost – Climate Change: Vital signs of the planet. NASA. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2785/unexpected-future-boost-of-methane-possible-from-arctic-permafrost/
Plumer, B. (2011, December 19). Permafrost thaw – just how scary is it? The Washington Post. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/just-how-scary-is-permafrost-thaw/2011/12/19/gIQAUE4j4O_blog.html
Schadel, C. (2021, April 7). Guest post: The irreversible emissions of a permafrost ‘tipping point’. Carbon Brief. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-the-irreversible-emissions-of-a-permafrost-tipping-point
Schaefer, K. (2022). National Snow and Ice Data Center. Methane and Frozen Ground | National Snow and Ice Data Center. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/methane.html
Welch, C. (2021, May 4). The Arctic’s thawing permafrost is releasing a shocking amount of dangerous gases. Science. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/arctic-thawing-ground-releasing-shocking-amount-dangerous-gases