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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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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