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    February 10, 2012 | 1:28 PM

    Thawing permafrost: something I don't want to think about


    So you know how we keep putting off things that scare us into inaction? Like our taxes, or that cholesterol test we probably need? Well, I feel the same way about studying trends in Arctic permafrost thaw. But the non-winter we've been experiencing has left me little choice but to face facts.

    © 2009 Flickr/nbonzey CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    As Arctic temperatures rise and ice cover in the northern hemisphere continues to shrink, permafrost soils are increasingly likely to release unprecedented amounts of carbon into the earth's already polluted atmosphere. What does this mean? A study published in Nature last year predicted that thawing permafrost will release nearly the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as worldwide deforestation does now. However, since much of the carbon released from permafrost soils will be methane, which has a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide, the warming effects will be 2.5 times stronger.

    © 2009 Flickr/nbonsey CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The New York Times reported evidence from Alaska that methane is already being vented into the atmosphere by thawing permafrost, and noted that Northern Hemisphere permafrost could contain as much as twice the amount of carbon that is already in the atmosphere. In Siberia, Russian scientists were shocked to find vast plumes of methane gushing into the air at a scale and density never seen before.

    In all of this, it is important to remember that carbon dioxide, not methane, still remains the number-one cause of climate change today. Carbon dioxide accounts for nearly 85% of all greenhouse gas pollution. But methane packs a punch 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide, so we've got to be careful. Another reason to investigate this phenomenon more carefully is that it is hard to predict the exact rate at which thawing permafrost will release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. That said, a growing number of scientists believe this will happen at a faster rate than models previously suggested.

    Even just based on what we know, carbon pollution from permafrost is an important amplifier of climate change. Think climate change on steroids, folks. Not a pretty picture. The good news is that if we slow global warming by slowing carbon dioxide pollution (which we know we can), we can keep carbon in permafrost where it belongs – in the frozen ground – and prevent it from adding fuel to the fire in the atmosphere.

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