A new review of existing studies suggests a gradual, prolonged release of greenhouse gases from permafrost soils in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

That sounds like bad news, and it is, but the good news is it actually means more time to adjust to ways to reduce emissions and prevent it from happening at all.  In the original global warming scenarios, climate scientists contended that as permafrost thawed, carbon would be released in a big “bomb” and significantly accelerate climate warming.  But a gradual case means more time to fix things. 

Like with sending a space ship to Alpha Centauri, it is better to spend money on basic research now than just go ahead and fire a rocket, because technology 80 years from now will pass the rocket that got sent today anyway. Likewise, solar power subsidies haven't made solar power more viable, it has actually postponed the future by starving basic research to keep legacy panel companies in business.

Permafrost soils contain twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere. As the climate warms and permafrost thaws, microbial breakdown of organic carbon increases and can accelerate the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere creating even more warming. In high-latitude regions of the Earth, temperatures may have risen up to 0.6 C (1.1 F) per decade during the last thirty years – twice as fast as the global average. Estimates are that permafrost may have warmed over 10 degrees F in the past 30 years. In the 1980s, the temperature of permafrost in Alaska, Russia and other Arctic regions averaged to be almost 18 F. Now the average is just over 28 F.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” said co-author A. David McGuire, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit . “What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

Most climate modelers want to incorporate the permafrost carbon feedback into their models, say these scientists, but whether they do or do not is a matter of their priorities given the multitude of issues that such models must consider. McGuire and co-authors consider the synthesis very important information for climate modeling groups in setting their priorities. 

“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under 2 degrees C (3.6 F) and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” McGuire said.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Interior Department’s Alaska Climate Science Center, and the Climate and Land-Use Program at USGS. The Alaska Climate Science Center provides scientific information to help natural resource managers and policy makers respond effectively to climate change. Top image credit: Merritt Turetsky.