Methane Meltdown: Thawing Permafrost Could Release More Potent Greenhouse Gas Than Expected
A study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that thawing permafrost in the Arctic might produce more methane than previously thought. Methane has 28 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, so the findings indicate scientists might have to reassess how thawing permafrost will contribute to climate change.
The research contradicts previous studies that suggested dry permafrost would contribute more to global warming than water-saturated permafrost, and it would do so mostly by releasing carbon dioxide. By studying samples of water-saturated permafrost in the laboratory over a seven-year period, the study's authors found that the samples produced equal amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. They were then able to derive models that predicted water-saturated permafrost would release about 2.4 times the greenhouse gases that dry permafrost would.
"What we can definitely say is that the importance of methane was underestimated until now in the carbon studies," the study's lead author and Universität Hamburg researcher Christian Knobloch, told The Washington Post.
The reason this study found different results is likely due to its length. Permafrost releases carbon as it melts due to microbial decomposition; previous studies did not pick up on the production of methane in water-saturated soils because they only lasted days or weeks. The laboratory observations, however, found that methane-producing communities of microorganisms did not activate in the permafrost samples until weeks to years had passed.
More methane release has been observed in field studies of the Arctic. Last summer, for example, EcoWatch reported that scientists found 7,000 methane-filled mounds in thawing permafrost in Siberia that bounced when researchers pressed on them.
7,000 Gas Bubbles Expected to 'Explode' in Siberia https://t.co/moTfoPscMI @SierraClub @ClimateReality @climatehawk1 @ClimateNexus— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1490188023.0
"What's remarkable about this study is the length of time they spent tracking the communities, and I think that offers a potential reason for why field and lab studies have disagreed with each other," University of Guelph ecologist Merritt Turetsky, who studies permafrost but was not involved in this particular study, told the Post.
However, the authors of Monday's study point out that more work needs to be done to determine how their laboratory observations will play out in the Arctic. While they predict that there will be a significant amount of water-saturated permafrost thawing in the region, since permafrost tends to impede drainage, they still say further research is needed to determine how much of the thawing ground will actually be wetlands.
Róisín Commane, an Arctic-atmosphere researcher at Harvard University, who was also not part of the study, told the Post that many factors could prevent the methane observed in the laboratory from reaching the atmosphere in the real world. Permafrost might not retain water as the ice melts, and organisms in the soil could turn the methane into carbon dioxide before it reaches the air.
"Ecosystems will probably produce more methane as they stay wet. The big question we have is, how much of that makes it into the atmosphere, and I don't think they get to that question here," Commane told the Post.
However, whether or not melting permafrost releases more methane or carbon dioxide, the Post reported that as much as 10 percent of permafrost carbon could be released into the atmosphere this century, which would disrupt global climate change goals.
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By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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