Thawing permafrost may speed global warming: study

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 21:02 EDT
google plus icon
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

WASHINGTON – Global warming could cause up to 60 percent of the world’s permafrost to thaw by 2200 and release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere that would further speed up climate change, a study released Wednesday warned.

Using projections based on UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado estimated that if global warming continues even at a moderate pace, a third of the earth’s permafrost will be gone by 2200.

If the planet warms at a faster pace, the world could see 59 percent of the permanently frozen underground layer of earth thaw out; as that happens, organic matter that has been trapped in the permafrost for tens of millennia will begin to decay, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

The NSIDC scientists then used a model to predict how much carbon the thawing permafrost would release and came up with the staggering figure of 190 gigatons by 2200.

“That’s the equivalent of half the amount of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age. That’s a lot of carbon,” NSIDC scientist Kevin Schaefer, the lead author of the study, told AFP.

A gigaton is one billion tons, so 190 gigatons is the equivalent of around a billion tons of carbon entering the atmosphere each year between now and 2200.

Schaefer said carbon that would be released from melting permafrost has to be accounted for in global warming strategies.

“If we don’t account for the release of carbon from permafrost, we’ll overshoot the C02 concentration we are aiming for and will end up with a warmer climate than we want,” he said.

But all was not doom and gloom, he said.

“If we start cutting emissions now, we will slow down the thaw rate and push the start of this carbon release off into the future,” he said.

In a study published in 2009, University of Florida ecology professor Ted Schuur used a different method to study the effect of thawing permafrost on atmospheric carbon and arrived at the same annual figure for carbon entering the atmosphere as Schaefer and his co-authors.

Some argue that the loss of permafrost would not present a significant threat to the planet, as plants would start to grow on the warmer earth and suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, thus blunting the problem.

But Schuur said in his study two years ago that protection from plant growth “doesn’t last, because there is so much carbon in the permafrost that eventually the plants can’t keep up.”

Schaefer insisted that a major preventive effort, starting now, could stave off the worst-case scenario of rapidly melting permafrost releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and further accelerating global warming and permafrost melting.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.
  • http://www.rawstory.com/ hounddogg

    and the hottest summers ever…

  • Mr. Neutron

    Here’s your Carbon Tax right here – it’s called “Free Market”:

    Ha ha !

  • Guest

    This article misses the real ticking time bomb which is all the methane locked up in the ice that is being released. Scientists haven’t been correct yet about the timing, and so far they’ve been wrong by a long shot on the far side, everything has been happening much, much, much, faster than predicted.


  • Mr. Neutron

    You’re right – I think the Agence France-Presse author got confused about “carbon”.

    It’s true that melting permafrost releases carbon into the atmosphere – mainly CH4, otherwise known as methane. And it’s 20 times the greenhouse gas that CO2 is:

    There’s also a lot of “permafrost” underwater in the Arctic continental shelf, and these previously frozen methane-hydrates are beginning to bubble up also.

    I think methane emissions in the Arctic will get worrisome way before 2200…

  • Guest

    don’t confuse weather with climate change as most folks are doing.

  • Guest

    There is an exponential factor at work here where acceleration is concerned, exactly what that number is, ???? , and it seems to be baffling the scientists, unknown territory. Regardless, it is coming and gaining speed, and it doesn’t care whether or not anyone believes it is happening or not.

  • Anonymous


    Fact 1: At 385 parts per million (ppm), CO2 is a significant greenhouse gas. The Earth is about 33oC (now 34oC) warmer than it would without the various greenhouse gases. CO2 contributes about 3 oC of this. Double CO2 and we expect another 3 oC of warming. Human emissions have increased CO2 by 40%. If you wore a sweater that was 40% thicker wouldn’t you expect to be warmer? Otherwise, where does the heat go?

    Fact 2: That CO2 is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, is utilized by plants and exhaled by animals is well known and not disputed. It’s the GHG properties of CO2 that are of concern, as well as its ability to dissolve in water and acidify the oceans.

    Fact 3: Plants are much more frequently limited by water and temperature constraints than by lack of CO2. Changes in the water cycle and temperature (e.g., Climate Change) are some of the major consequences predicted by Global Warming.

    Fact 4: CO2 emissions do stay in the atmosphere. Yes, there is exchange with the oceans and with plants but humans are releasing CO2 faster than it can be absorbed, which is why CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere. The atmospheric degradation processes are quite slow for CO2, resulting in an atmospheric lifetme of ~100 years.

    Fact 5: Water vapor is indeed the most abundant greenhouse gas but only in a feedback rather than a forcing mode. Without CO2 forcing to sustain the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be an iceball. However, while a little CO2 is great, a lot is not terrific.

    Fact 6: It’s the global wamring potenial of greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and CH4, that is important, rather than simply their percent contribution to the atmosphere. Like hormones in the body, small concentrations of GHG can have profound effects.

  • Guest

    no, its not, and your entire argument, though sounding good, demonstrates that you like so many others do not understand the basic principle of what global warming, climate change means. Which makes all of your spouting off of data and dates meaningless. I would agree with the argument that they really blew it by not making global toxic polution the main issue, and that’s because corporate america wants nothing more than to continue using the planet as their toilet, so that they don’t have to include the waste and cleanup in the price of their products, and of course people look the other way too, because they want to buy everything cheap and don’t stop to think about the real or end cost of this game.”Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892)

  • Anonymous

    A quick search of the internet shows that most climate scientists believe that global warming is happening and that man is contributing significantly. There are many deniers, mostly non-scientists, who can cite via cut and paste, misleading and false data to support their point of view. They can adhere to the theories of Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, etc. I’ll go with the scientific community. Arguing with them is pointless, as is arguing with 9/11 Truthers, or the End Times believers.
    Given a choice of believing scientists concerning a matter of science, or ignorant dingbats, I’ll go with the scientists.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/CTGKYFNDGU6KJEHQNNPXA64ZZI Pj

    “Warming Data has been discredited long ago by the revelations of Climate Gate…”

    All by itself, this indicts you — conclusively and irretrievably — as being, at the very least, sloppy and not all-that-concerned with facts… and, at worst, as being a gibberish-babbling fool.

    Either way, there’s no reason for any serious person to give anything that you have to say even a minute’s worth of serious consideration.

  • Guest

    Just keep moving, folks, nothing to see here. Keep watching t.v., don’t worry your beautiful minds about climate change. Consume. Obey. Submit.

  • Cussin’ Jack

    I think both sides of this issue can agree that we are witnessing an increase in “greenhouse gasses” in the atmosphere — that seems undisputed. From there I think most will agree that this increase is causing overall global temperatures to rise and that global warming/climate change will pose some very dire consequences for life on Earth … and in the Hamptons. Given all that, it seems to me that the cause of increased greenhouse gasses is immaterial.

    (1) If the cause ISN’T man-made, then there is very likely nothing man can do to slow, stop, or reverse the trend.

    (2) If the cause IS man-made, there’s no way in Hell humans are ever going to voluntarily agree on a realistic, non-delusional plan to slow, stop, or reverse the trend.

    Full-on total economic collapse of industrial society is probably the only thing that has a chance of working. Recent admissions (finally) by major corporate energy players and corporate media of the imminent arrival of Peak Oil gives me some reason for hope … I think we can now see slow collapse in the headlights a la James Kunstler’s “Long Emergency”.

    My point? Either way we’re probably screwed. Welcome to “Easter Island: The Planet”.

  • Anonymous

    If you’re not getting paid by Chevron for posting this crap then you are a bigger tool than you look like. You’ll pay your carbon tax and like it. If not, go live in Mexico or something. They got almost no taxes except sales tax. It’s your fucking paradise.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6FSQPG5G2N5SYVOMSZ7SRXG57I Angry Liberal

    How much does BP, Shell, Exxon pay you to make these nonsense statements? Or do you work for the Koch brothers? When you look in the mirror, do you feel good, knowing that you’ve sold you soul? Yeah, CO2 is good. More is better! So let’s put you in a room full of it and see how you do.
    Your cut & paste points came right from the oil & coal industry’s talking points, so until you show proof of your advanced degree in climatology, please STFU!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QMPOO3PZFN7XV2XZKCGSXXR3WM Joe Somebody

    “and all life – plants and animals alike – benefit from more of it.”

    It’s complete misunderstanding of science like this that help sane people understand just how ignorant you are. Too much CO2 and some plants become toxic to humans and other animals.. plants we eat now may be chemically altered to an inedible state as CO2 rises.

    “C02, which represents 0.038% of our atmosphere,”

    and at 0.04% alcohol in your system, you’re not drunk yet.. but a mere 0.04% more and you’re too drunk to drive. Such a small percentage and look what happens?

    I’m not even going to bother with the rest of your “facts”.. they are misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the entire body of science. In true wing-nut form, you’re cherry picking what you want and ignoring the parts that flesh out the picture. Partially discussing a fact while ignoring the rest of the story is the same as a lie. And the only way to be a denier about global warming is to lie to yourself; you got that one down pat .. “Carbon dioxide is a nutrient, not a pollutant,” .. stick your head in a bag of CO2, breathe deep for 3 minutes, and tell me it’s not a pollutant.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QMPOO3PZFN7XV2XZKCGSXXR3WM Joe Somebody

    Your argument makes sense to idiots, that’s about it. I’ve long ago learned how to read and see right-wing broken logic and distortions parading as “fact”.. Your 1/2 truths and distractions don’t work on sane, intelligent, rational people (you know, science minded people).. but keep spewing your bullshit. I’ll just keep putting you back on the shelf with Beck and the rest of the clinically deluded and insane.

  • Anonymous

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Now I’m convinced that ComeOn1 isn’t a plant. He lost it! Ha! Ha! Too bad this is no laughing matter…

  • Anonymous

    Come on, you guys still yakkin’ about global warming?
    1. 2% of the scientists that are being paid by transnational companies say that global warming is a hoax. Just like when the cigarette companies paid scientest to state there is no corrollation between cigarettes and cancer. The jury is still out on that one.
    2. Can every Senator and Representative that accepts donations from the said companies be on the take? I don’t think so.
    3. It snowed in Massachusetts. 70 inches of snow!!! if the planet is getting warmer, then how can it snow!!!
    3A. This proves that Sean hannity is a genius.

    4. this was a snark. SOME might say better than the onion. Some meaning me. But I am biased.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QMPOO3PZFN7XV2XZKCGSXXR3WM Joe Somebody

    Those deluded notions of science have created the entire modern world you’re living in, including the computer you’re posting to the internet on. Without that deluded sense of science, you’d still be living in a cave and beating both your dinner and mate over the head with a club and cowering in the dark.

  • Mr. Neutron

    Fact 1: CO2 has already increased to 391:

    Every year the forcing to the climate gets worse and worse, even without the “methane bomb” on the horizon. The dupes who dismiss AGW because they “don’t trust Government scientists” will soon learn that big fossil fuel corporations are much less trustworthy – these are the funding sources behind the “denier” movement, which urges random unqualified people to “disagree”, for various changing reasons, with highly trained scientists who have been working on this problem for decades.

    In the next five years, the Arctic will be essentially ice free for a time in the summer – then, the non brain-damaged will wake up to the urgency of this problem.

  • Anonymous

    As the permafrost thaws, parts of Alaska are sinking. Too bad Sarah Palin’s house isn’t in one of those areas; I’d love to hear what she has to say then.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1046573071 Matt Mosley

    God save us from their bull$hit

  • Anonymous

    Golly gee! This critter can spell. (At an 8th grade level) Could you present your Academic credentials. paers published (1st authorship prefered) Books? Conferences chaired? Anything? Waiting!

  • Roberthe

    Oh no, not the Oregon Petition! One third of the respondents were engineers, one tenth doctors (including veterinarians), another one tenth had no comprehensive training in any science whatsoever-that’s over 50% of signatories. Admittedly, this critique does not address the validity, or lack thereof, of the petition. However, when you consider that roughly 97% of climatologists support the thesis of AGW it plays harshly against the veterinarians and agronomists who support the petition, or the mechanical engineers for that matter. If you have tuberculosis you’re probably not going to go to a climatologist for evaluation and treatment; my concern isn’t about the signers lack of intelligence, it’s about their lack of expertise.

    Just as a hypothetical aside, it would be interesting/informative to learn how many of them believe the Universe and all manner of wonders therein was created in six days: my guess is that it would be a significant number.