Short summary. The journalist stories often don't even mention that studies are not agreed on whether it is carbon positive or even perhaps carbon negative. The amount in the worst case is around an extra quarter of a degree rise by 2100, a slow burner through to the next three or four centuries. That is for “business as usual”.
For 3°C which we are close to already and easily achievable, then it is possible that it remains carbon negative and removes the equivalent of CO2 a fifth of a degree by 2299, and at most it is a fifth of a degree increase by 2299.
According to Climate Tracker our current policies keep us within 3.3 °C, while the unconditional pledges and targets keep us within 3 °C with a 66% or greater chance of remaining within 3.2 °C. Bearing in mind that with the Paris agreement countries are expected to increase on these pledges every year, it is reasonable to assume we do achieve 3 C. And with the countries agreeing to the rule book for the Paris agreement last December there is now nothing to stop it.
So that fifth of a degree increase by 2299 is more the figure to look at than the quarter of a degree increase by 2100 of the “business as usual” scenario.
This is their summary graphic.
It is significant but far less so than you'd guess from the clickbait titles like this one in the Daily Mail:
- Shocking images reveal the melting permafrost around the globe as study warns it is warming at a record rate
In that case they were reporting this press release
In that case they found that temperatures rose by on average 0.3 C in a decade, but more slowly further south where snow insulated the ground, only 0.2 C. The polar regions are projected to warm more than the rest of the world. However to put this in context you need to know that it takes a lot to actually melt the permafrost, as ice doesn't melt easily (has a high latent heat of fusion). Melting the permafrost is something that will happen slowly over the next three centuries and it still won't reach equilibrium even then.
This article is part of my work to write articles that present the same material without the exaggerations of the sensationalist press or even sometimes the conventional mainstream press too. It is to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of suicide, by such stories.
I also aim to fill in the background details that are often left out in the exaggerated scary stories, that make all the difference.
This concern is about ancient plants, and animals too - including mammoths in the Siberian permafrost, frozen in the ground in the Arctic regions. They are very old, got frozen into the ground tens of thousands of years ago. As the permafrost melts then these old plants will start to decay.
This is a video debunking some of the misconceptions about the Siberian permafrost
Click to watch on YouTube
This video will help you get a better idea of what the material in the permafrost is like.
Click to watch on YouTube
So, it’s not about the methane clathrates . Those are very different. They are below the Arctic sea floor and are a strange kind of ice with methane trapped in it.
Most of the methane in the clathrates comes from oil and gas deposits deep below the sea that got trapped on its way to the surface. There are some also that formed in ancient permafrost below the sea bed. There are vast amounts of them and at one time there was thought to be a risk of a feedback loop called the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis, leading to much of them being released in a few decades. However the clathrate gun hypothesis was disproved in 2017-8. It is no longer a concern for climate change
- Clathrate gun hypothesis See also the videos at the end of the article here: Clathrate gun hypothesis
The Siberian permafrost is more of an unknown at present, and there is a wide variety of ideas. However it is a far smaller effect than the clathrates. Just a fraction of a degree. In 2017 the Royal Society wrote:
"Permafrost: …. This leads to a significant positive feedback, but the review emphasized that emissions are “likely to be gradual and sustained rather than abrupt and massive”. A recent modeling study estimated that permafrost carbon releases could contribute up to 12% of the change in global mean temperature by 2100 Studies since 2013 therefore confirm … the need to include it accurately in Earth system models, but they do not support considering it to exhibit threshold behaviour."
There threshold behaviour means creating a feedback loop as for the original Clathrate Gun hypothesis where it creates warming that leads to more release in a cycle that once started continues until it stops.
No, the Siberian permafrost is not like that. It is more like a slight amplification than a feedback loop. The Siberian permafrost does continue to be of concern still, substantial amounts of carbon, but far less than for the original hypothesis about those deep Arctic floor deposits.
2011 PAPER WITH ESTIMATE OF 190 GIGATONS IN THE NEXT TWO CENTURIES - NOT AS MUCH AS IT SEEMS
This paper from 2011 lead to alarmist journalist stories such as:
The paper itself has a very different message. That 20 years was for a switch over from carbon negative to carbon positive, emitting rather than absorbing carbon, in the Arctic.
It was just an extra fraction of a degree addition though, hardly really counts as what the general public would think of as “accelerates”. The paper estimated that by 2200, the total flux from permafrost carbon could be 190 gigatons.
"By 2200, the PCF strength in terms of cumulative permafrost carbon flux to the atmosphere is 190 ± 64 Gt C. This estimate may be low because it does not account for amplified surface warming due to the PCF itself and excludes some discontinuous permafrost regions where SiBCASA did not simulate permafrost. We predict that the PCF will change the arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42–88% of the total global land sink. The thaw and decay of permafrost carbon is irreversible and accounting for the PCF will require larger reductions in fossil fuel emissions to reach a target atmospheric CO2 concentration."
That may seem a lot and you might think there is excuse for alarmist headlines. After all, it is half of the total released so far since pre-industrial times. But remember that this is for emissions over the next two centuries, and our temperatures have only increased by 1 C since pre-industrial. That is for carbon dioxide and as we’ll see most of the concern is for carbon dioxide rather than methane. Methane is a much more shortlived gas - half gone in fifteen years and nearly all of any pulse of methane added is completely gone in a century. Although thirty times more potent it doesn’t spend much time in the atmosphere and that also only has a small fraction of a degree effect.
The original paper for that story is here:
For carbon dioxide, temperatures rise by about one degree every 400 gigatons. So, to give a rough idea of what that figure means, that 190 gigatons corresponds to perhaps about half a degree rise by 2200, or about a quarter of a degree per century.
Though as it turns out most of those emissions are in the 22nd century. That is because ice takes a fair while to melt, and even after global warming has stopped and the temperatures otherwise stabilized the Arctic permafrosts continue to be released for at least a century until it also comes into balance.
Right now the Arctic regions are carbon sinks. indeed for the next couple of decades at least, they remain a carbon sink. That 20 years from now is the date at which it turns around from being a carbon sink to emitting carbon according to these worst case scenarios.
IT IS NOT AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS THOUGH - WOULD WE REALLY GET THAT MUCH CARBON FROM THE PERMAFROST?
What you need to be aware of also is that there is a wide range of views on what happens when this permafrost melts.
It’s not like the clathrates where the methane has already formed and just gets released. There the methane has already formed and it was a question of how much would be released and how much would get to the air rather than dissolve in the oceans.
In the case of the permafrost, then most of the carbon is in the form of organics, not methane, not yet. The methane and the CO2 would be caused by the organics rotting as it melts. A As you see from that intro video most of the organics are deep below the surface and when the permafrost melts they will still be deep below the surface and it depends on what happens to those organics as they decompose and what happens to any gases as they move up to the surface.
They can also produce either methane or CO2. Methane is the stronger gas but only stays in the atmosphere for 15 years or so before half of it is gone, very short lived. Also the methane can be lost even on the journey up to the surface from where it formed. From the sea bed or the base of a lake, then if methane is released 100 meters below the surface, just about all of the methane in a bubble is gone by the time it reaches the surface because the sea is very undersaturated in methane.
So for instance if you read this study
It got lots of headlines - this is how the Washington Post put it:
But it is only one side of the story. That was an experiment in the laboratory involving slowly thawing Siberian permafrost. But in real life the situation may be more complicated.
This figure gives an idea of the many processes involved.
Figure taken from this paper showing some of the processes. The methane is produced deep underground. It gets involved in many chemical reactions as well as being produced by methanogenesis (methane producing microbes). Methane is produced in anaerobic conditions conditions without much oxygen - and it is consumed in aerobic conditions.
Deep down the melting permafrost will be anaerobic, but the upper layers are likely to be oxygen rich. As that diagram shows a fair bit of the methane may well be oxidised and removed before it reaches the atmosphere, turned into carbon dioxide and dissolved also into any water in the soil. The oxygen, nitrogen, iron etc are various things that methane eating microbes (methanotrophs) can use to metabolize methane produced by the methane producing microbes deeper down (methanogens). By the time it gets to plant roots it depends mainly on the amount of moisture in the soil which makes oxygen more available for the microbes.
As they put it in the paper: “The production of CH4 does not necessarily mean that it will ever reach the atmosphere where it can act as a GHG because CH4 is subject to oxidation in many environments. In the natural environment, CH4 produced in deeper anoxic layers diffuses through the sediment column toward the upper more oxidized zone. Here aerobic methane oxidizing bacteria oxidize CH4 to CO2.”
Then on the surface you also have new plant life, and that takes CO2 out of the atmosphere. The whole thing is so complex it is no surprise they can’t say for sure what will happen yet, and even if it is net positive or net negative in its effect.
SOME STUDIES THAT SUGGEST THE NET EFFECT MAY ACTUALLY BE ALMOST NOTHING OR EVEN CARBON NEGATIVE
Not that much has melted yet so we can’t really study it to see what will happen in the future. But there are some studies of the thaws that happened already.
This for instance is a study in Canada. They studied two kinds of permafrost first results of wildfires. These are generally oxic conditions and don’t form any methane when they thaw. They are in uplands and well drained areas and so, when they thaw, the water drains out letting oxygen in so that the methanogens are not able to flourish there.
The other type are peatlands in low areas. These are water logged and remain anoxic and the microbes do produce methane. But the methane doesn’t get to the surface and the peat starts to grow rapidly as soon as it thaws out:
In upland and well-drained areas, thaw typically results in deepening of the active layer and as water drains from the system, oxic conditions tend to predominate throughout the soil profile. In contrast, thaw in peatlands that have developed in lowlands with ice-rich permafrost often results in thermokarst landforms characterized by surface subsidence, water-logging, vegetation change and fast peat accumulation following thaw.
They found no CO2 losses from the wetlands and instead a large CO2 uptake from the rapidly growing peat. There was some methane released but the uptake of the peat more than offset it.
They found the CO2 emissions from the forested areas were dependent on how much oxygen there was in the soil.
Which seems to be a general thing - that even though you’d think anoxic conditions would encourage methanogens and methane, they cite other studies that came to the same conclusion including one in Alaska that did find large CO2 emissions but from oxic rather than anoxic sites. The main emissions are from the oxic conditions, well drained soils and CO2 emissions rather than methane.
• Permafrost thaw exposes large stores of soil organic carbon to decomposition.
• Substantial respiration of aged soil carbon in thawed well-drained sites.
• No CO2 losses from permafrost sources detected in thermokarst wetlands.
• Rapid peat accumulation results in net C uptake post-thaw in thermokarst wetlands.
• Soil oxygen availability determines the effect of thaw on soil C balance study of thaws as a result of forest fires:
Here is another study , this time of lakes in the Arctic that found they produced much less CO2 than expected - and indeed are more or less in CO2 balance.
These studies are of course far less dramatic. Even if journalists were to find them interesting it’s hard to slant them into a click bait title. So they don’t get shared so much and most people don’t even know about them.
If you check the list of sources in the Permafrost Carbon Network then you will find a wide variety of views and results. The general public only get to see the results that are most dramatic and those also are then exaggerated through the roof by journalists.
ANOTHER VIEW - THAT IT IS THE DRY SOIL THAT ABSORBS CARBON AND WET SOIL EMITS METHANE
This is another recent paper and it helps to show how varied the views are. It’s almost the opposite result from the peat bogs paper. They think that there will be almost no feedback from dry soils and some from wet soils and mainly methane which is a short lived gas. Also they do give a figure for the CO2 emissions by 2100 rather than a later date like 2200. It is roughly in line with the other estimates.
The press release is here
This paper is saying there is probably almost no long term CO2 feedback from dry soils, that there is some CO2 from wet soils, but not that much, and suggests methane, a much shorter lived gas, is more relevant. Could contribute a very slight warming. They do not attempt to estimate how much.
This recent paper says at the end:
"These findings challenge the view of a stronger permafrost carbon-climate feedback from drained soils and emphasize the importance of CH4 production in thawing permafrost on climate-relevant timescales."
There are two situations, dried out soils exposed to oxygen and wet soils. They looked at both. For dried out soils they found that there was an increase in CO2 but also an increase in CO2 sequestration, more carbon dioxide fixated in the soil, which compensated for it which is why they say this is not a significant effect any more according to their research
For wet soils they found an increase in CO2, and also in methane - methane is a short lived warming gas in the atmosphere.
The press release says
"The permafrost soils of Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America could produce up to one gigaton of methane and 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2100. "
By comparison human CO2 emissions are around 30 gigatons a year. So you are talking about a total equivalent to one year of human emissions by 2100. Significant but not a huge impact.
Methane emissions currently 10 million tons a year. So that is a significant increase in methane emission, one gigaton over a century. It would mean an extra 10 million tons added per year, but it wouldn’t mean you have an extra gigaton of methane by 2100. The effects only last a few decades after emission, half gone in a decade or two, and methane is still a minor effect, more powerful as a greenhouse gas but there isn’t much of it. It’s about 30 times more potent so that gigaton of methane at worst is equivalent to another year of human emissions. But in practice much less. If that was emitted continuously then about two thirds would be gone by 2100.
Techy details: to get a rough idea let’s just split it into decades, 125 million tons each decade. And let’s do it as a pulse of 125 million tons of methane at the end of each decade. That’s going to be an overestimate as it is being emitted throughout the decade so some is already gone of that decade’s emissions by the end. We get
125*(0.5)^(0/15)+125*(0.5)^(10/15)+125*(0.5)^(20/15)+125*(0.5)^(30/15)+125*(0.5)^(40/15)+125*(0.5)^(50/15)+125*(0.5)^(60/15)+125*(0.5)^(70/15) - Google Search = 329.4 million tons extra methane by 2100.
That’s equivalent to about 10 gigatons of CO2 or a third of a year of human emissions. (CO2 emissions here Analysis: Global CO2 emissions set to rise 2% in 2017 after three-year ‘plateau’ | Carbon Brief0
Michael Mann did a post about this idea that permafrost methane could be disastrous - despite the name it is not really a worst case scenario, rather an absurd over estimate.
He still didn’t get any runaway effect.
CO2 emissions figures here:
Methane budget here, the red 10 shows excess of 10 million tons into the atmosphere per year at present, though it does show that the amount of methane in the atmosphere is currently growing.
Notice that 513 million tons are removed from the atmosphere every year. The original graphic is here: Methane Budget
The thing is it's a matter of perspective. E.g. compared to the emissions of a small country, it may be a lot, and with every country doing its best (apart from US) to combat climate change, then it is very significant. E.g. 30 gigatons is equivalent to only one year of human emissions for the whole world, but to 12 years of emissions by India, and getting on for a century of emissions by the UK.
So, in one sense 30 gigatons isn't a lot, it's not going to be the make or break for 1.5 C. In another sense it is a lot, when every country is trying to do its bit, then it's a whole century of emissions by a medium sized country.
Our decreased emission will mean a lot more than increased permafrost. The permafrost in total over the next century through to 2100 in worst case by this study produce a little more CO2 than humans do in one year. 37 gigatons compared to 30 gigatons.
If they do succeed in steeply reducing that to close to 0 by 2040 or even earlier, it far more than offsets this. That would save nearly 70 times as much CO2 emissions as the permafrost compared to just continuing as is, never mind comparing this with increased CO2 emissions which would be much more than 70 times as much. You are talking about maybe a 1-2% effect from the permafrost as the worst case
RECENT REVIEW ARTICLE GIVES A WIDE RANGE OF FIGURES
There is a much more recent study from 2018, projected forwards to 2299. First we need a bit of an intro on the RCP pathways, what they mean:
Skip the next section if you already have that background
BACKGROUND ON REPRESENTATIVE CONCENTRATION PATHWAYS
Across the bottom it shows the cumulative total CO2. The vertical axis shows the temperature increase.
The date each milestone is reached is marked on the lines - as you see, the purple RCP 2.5 is the one that reaches less than 1000 gigatons total by 2100. The pink area shows the uncertainty.
The RCP’s are detailed scenarios worked out so that climate modelers can run their models on the same projections for comparing them.
- RCP 2.6: this is 1.5 C by 2100, ~490 ppm CO2
- RCP 4.5: this is. 2.4 C by 2100, ~650 ppm CO2
- RCP 6: this is 3 C by 2100~850 ppm CO2
- RCP 8.5: this is 4.9 C by 2100, ~1370 ppm CO2, “Business as usual”. We are already well within this one, by existing policies alone, not including pledges. The current existing policies keep us to within 3.1 - 3.5 C according to Climate Tracker.
- The Beginner's Guide to Representative Concentration Pathways
- The representative concentration pathways: an overview
This shows how the atmospheric CO2 and the temperature and sea level rises over a longer time period through to 2500 with the three scenarios, notice how by 2300 then the RCP 8.5 business as usual has soared way above the others, nearly three times as much CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s the one that the big fuss about permafrost carbon is mainly about - and we just aren’t headed for that even with the policies so far not including pledges. We are a little way above the RCP 6 at present and heading downwards as pledges increase:
This shows the CO2 emissions for the various scenarios - this is the input to the models, for RCP 8.5 they just keep going up and up, though a little more slowly by 2100. These are the yearly emissions. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere keeps going up even when the yearly emission go down because CO2 is very long lived in the atmosphere:
With RCP 2.6 then the CO2 emissions reduce to zero by the 2070s. The others all end up with some net carbon release continuing beyond 2100. For those the world continues to warm until it gets into equilibrium with the new CO2 input levels. Which is why in the temperature diagram only RCP 2.6 does it eventually start to cool again.
I got these graphs here:
There is another possibility that we end up with a net negative emissions. It is possible if we burn wood and then use carbon capture, or use other methods of carbon capture. If so it may for instance increase to 2 C but with vigorous carbon capture we could get it back to 1.5 C by 2100. It is technologically possible as the IPCC said in the 2018 report. But better to ramp down now and not add that CO2 in the first place.
The aim of the Paris agreement is to reach zero emissions though that needs increased pledges over what we have now.
As soon as the CO2 levels reach zero then the temperature increases stop. But the permafrost would continue to melt as would the ice at the poles. That’s a very slow process because ice has huge thermal inertia.
Icebergs can spend months, and longer, in warm water before they melt. There are lakes in New Zealand that often gets icebergs from glaciers and once there they continue for ages. Bizarrely you get ice bergs in warm water in summer.
Click to watch on YouTube
In the same way, the ice in Greenland and Antarctica will persist in a warmer world indeed for tens of thousands of years in their cases.
For the permafrost it is between the two. It takes a few centuries for it all to melt. But even if we could stop emissions now the world will stay warmer for centuries.
RESULT OF THE 2018 REVIEW
For RCP 4.5 i.e. 2.4 C by 2100, then the models range from 66 gtons loss of CO2 to a 70 gtons gain BY 2299. (A petagram is the same as a gigaton, a billion metric tons). This is a bit below what we are currently on, existing policies, 3.1 to 3.5 C by 2100.
For RCP 8.5 i.e. 4.9 C by 2100, then it is between 74 and 641 gigatons emissions by 2299.
That upper end of the range corresponds to around twice the emissions since pre-industrial, an addition of 2 C or so. But as we saw, RCP 8.5 is not a realistic future, there is no way we are gong to do that even with existing policies - and to get to that scenario means no reductions at all through to 2199.
With RCP 4.5 then there are between 8 and 244 gigatons gains in organic carbon in the Arctic regions which is what offsets the emissions of methane.
Even the worst case for RCP 4.5 which is well within our reach, we are only a bit above it, then it’s a 70 gtons gain. On the basis of around 400 gtons per degree that’s less than a fifth of a degree. By 2299. And most of it after 2100.
Also most of those emissions happen after 2100.
Their conclusion says:
"Despite model uncertainties, the results of this study indicate that, under climate change trajectories resulting from little or no mitigation effort, such as the RCP8.5 climate we considered, the northern permafrost region would likely act as a source of soil carbon to the atmosphere, but substantial net losses would not occur until after 2100. Under climate change trajectories resulting from more aggressive mitigation, such as the RCP4.5 climate we considered, our analysis indicates that the northern permafrost region could act as a net sink for carbon. These results have significant implications for climate mitigation policies, as they indicate that effective mitigation policies could attenuate the negative consequences of the permafrost–carbon feedback that are likely to occur under policies that result in little or no mitigation."
In that paper they say that there would be more of a carbon sink if it weren’t that the plants are reduced in growth due to lack of nitrogen in the soil. With more nitrogen in the thawing permafrost there would be much more of a carbon negative effect here.
The best people to go to on this are the likes of the IPCC, the Royal Society, or USGS. Then if you do a bit more work you can look at the literature and the range of views and look out for review articles like this 2018 review.
The thing is at any time you have a very wide range of views in the published papers. The permafrost is a particular case of that. The ones who say that it will increase emissions get all more publicity than those who don’t. Then journalists exaggerate and junk scientists jump on top of the bandwagon saying absurd things, sometimes without even giving any explanation of where their ideas come from, just painting a picture.
It is not possible to assess these different claims without a deep understanding of the topic itself. So you need to go to the next level up and look at the review articles by climate experts to get a reasonable idea of the current state of research in the field.
It is significant in the sense that it is equivalent to a major nation in the greenhouse gas emissions - but it is not significant compared to the global emissions. .
If we stay within 3 C the effects are small and may be carbon negative.
As soon as we stop emissions - that's the temperature that we remain within, apart from any delayed effects such as these emissions from the Siberian permafrost. So for instance, if we were somehow to stop all carbon emissions today then we would stabilize at 1 C above pre-industrial.
The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis is now effectively disproved by the latest reviews of the USGS, Royal Society and the CAGE research, so we don't need to worry about that one as a delayed effect. The Amazonian rain forest is not severely impacted at 2 °C and we can indeed do a lot to reverse some of the effects by reversing desertificiation and planting trees.
In a recent study reported in Scientific American, researchers who planted a mix of trees rather than a single species found that they removed 32 tons per hectare instead of the more usual 12 tons. Nearly three times as much.
Many countries are involved in reforestation, China most of all, with nearly 79 million hectares planted by 2015. Under the Bonn Challenge, 56 countries, from central and south America mainly, are pledged to restore 350 million hectares of forest by 2030. The IPCC report's summary for policy makers gave four different scenarios for remaining within 1.5 °C and all involved some measure of afforestation.
Under the Bonn Challenge, 56 countries, many from central and South America and central Africa, have pledged to “restore” 350m hectares of forest by 2030.
Carbon brief have a map of where reafforestation is happening around the world and with a summary of the research, and the opportunities and challenges here.
Here are a few more articles about other ideas for carbon capture:
This is my article on the recent IPCC report
- Yes, We Can Rise To The IPCC Target To Keep Global Warming Within 1.5°C (2.7°F)
- What The IPCC Scientists Really Said - NOT 'All Going To Die' - Key Points, Press Conference And Some Highlights From The Report
Do have a look at the second one especially. It has the videos by the co-chairs, short summaries of the key points as they see them. Widely divergent from the exaggerated scary journalistic reporting. Also has the video of the press conference itself. I find it hard to understand how the journalists heard what they said and wrote the alarmist articles they wrote on this topic last year. Try listening to the press conference yourself.
And see also
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