Saturday, April 11, 2015

No permafrost bomb - probably

Sou | 1:34 AM Go to the first of 12 comments. Add a comment

I'm busy working on something at the moment, but saw this article, which might interest some people. It's about a new paper in Nature from a large team from the Permafrost Carbon Network, led by Dr Ted Schuur.

What they figure is that the carbon from permafrost probably won't be released in sudden spurts, it will be more gradual. But that's no reason for complacency, as you'll see.

Below is a press release from the University of Alaska Fairbanks:

The release of greenhouse gases from Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost may be more gradual and prolonged than previously thought, according to a new scientific synthesis paper published April 9 in the journal Nature.

Scientists say that may allow society more time to adapt to environmental change.

“Twenty years ago there was very little research about the possible rate of permafrost carbon release,” said co-author A. David McGuire, U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist and climate modeling expert with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology. “In 2011, we assembled an international team of scientists into the Permafrost Carbon Network to synthesize existing research and answer the questions of how much permafrost carbon is out there, how vulnerable to decomposition it is once it’s thawed, and what are the forms in which it’s released into the atmosphere.”

Permafrost soils contain carbon in the form of organic material, such as dead plants and animals. As the climate warms and permafrost thaws, that organic material decomposes and releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which in turn creates even more warming. In high-latitude regions of the Earth, temperatures have risen 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade during the last 30 years, which is twice as fast as the global average.

Permafrost has warmed nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years, according to co-author Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert with the UAF Geophysical Institute. In the 1980s, the average temperature of permafrost in Alaska, Russia and other Arctic regions was nearly 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Now the average is just over 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. Two decades ago, scientists thought that, as permafrost thawed, carbon would be released suddenly. They thought that this “carbon bomb” would significantly accelerate climate warming.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” said McGuire. “What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

Many climate modelers do not incorporate the effects of carbon and methane release from permafrost thawing into their models. McGuire, Romanovsky and their co-authors hope the new findings will help modelers prioritize the inclusion of those effects in climate models.

“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under two degrees Celsius and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” McGuire said.

Scientists in the Permafrost Carbon Network plan to continue to help the modeling community refine their models to include permafrost carbon and its fate in a warming world. They recommend improved observation methods, including using remote sensing to measure real-time carbon dioxide and methane emissions from permafrost regions.

E. A. G. Schuur, A. D. McGuire, C. Schädel, G. Grosse, J. W. Harden, D. J. Hayes, G. Hugelius, C. D. Koven, P. Kuhry, D. M. Lawrence, S. M. Natali, D. Olefeldt, V. E. Romanovsky, K. Schaefer, M. R. Turetsky, C. C. Treat, J. E. Vonk. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature, 2015; 520 (7546): 171 DOI: 10.1038/nature14338


  1. This is good news if true.
    But comparing the effects of thawing permafrost to current tropical deforestation rates is, IMO, dangerous as it could confuse Joe Public - the real danger of thawing permafrost is its unstopability, it is far easier to let more trees grow than re-freeze the tundra.

    1. Anon, I disagree: it's bad news. Looking at the press release they say that 20 years ago little was known. A sudden release was conjectured. However, because the evidence base was poor it wasn't included in climate models. With this paper I think it will have to be included as a significant positive feedback: stand by for increased climate sensitivity.

      The Robertscribbler blog has been highlighting the work that has been done particularly by Russian scientists in recent years on this question. That work has been treated with scepticism (in the true sense of that word) by the wider scientific community. Now that that work is being recognised on the other side of the Bering Sea in Alaska (Palin country no less!!) and beyond I think it will be taken a lot more seriously.

  2. I "suppose" if you call a few decades "gradual" then you'd be correct. But on geological time scales, this isn't even a blink of an eye.

    At just 4 degrees (average) now before it all melts, this would signify that a LOT of trapped gas will be released - and SOON.

    Moreover, if in just 30 years, there has been an 11 degree rise - what will just ten more years bring? 4 degrees? Anyone know?

    Something stinks about this claim of "gradual release" (defies common sense). Also defies what is happening with escalating global methane releases being measured at just 0.85C average warming.

    In any case, the melting permafrost is already catastrophic for northern communities and northern industries. I also agree with Anonymous above - comparing this to deforestation rates is simply ridiculous.

    One thing that really pisses me off about these papers and scientists in general - they constantly contradict each other and make bold claims of assurances based upon their particular data sets - while apparently ignoring or being unaware of all the others.

    These claims are then picked up by the denialsphere and trumpeted as "proof" that there is little to nothing to worry about and besides, we've got all the time in the world sort of gibberish.

    But the reality is unfolding faster and faster EVERY SINGLE DAY now - and ANYONE who is following this closely is well aware of how dangerous and how fast this is becoming. We are already well into dangerous climate change and dangerous levels of warming and this new paper actually proves this (good grief, 11 degrees warming in the permafrost soils already?).

    I would not at all be surprised is there wasn't a major retraction on this "gradual" claim, probably within the next 12 months.

    Something isn't right.


    1. Agree with you.

      There seems to be some quite pointless rhetorical shuffling going: 'methane bomb' vs 'more gradual than some thought'...

      Whatever the shape of the curve- lumpy / punctuated / 'smooth' - the release is geologically rapid, is not going to stop for centuries, and involves a huge reservoir, and it's already essentially a disaster.

      And in the background is the presumption that the current biosphere partitioning of the desequestered carbon will continue.

  3. The fact is that if we do not control CO2 in the atmosphere we are f*cked anyway. Methane was always going to be a secondary worry.


  4. Today's climate models do not include methane release by melting permafrost as part of their feedbacks. In that sense they are underestimating global warming. If this paper provides data to include this phenomenon global warming projections will get higher.

  5. Those silly UAF scientists over in the GI and IAB, don't they know the real climate action is at IARC!

  6. When the bacteria start producing heat by digesting the 'carbon' in the permafrost it will be a runaway feedback. see here


    1. Hey Bert... I was wondering why you put that long token in your link, but I now see that it gives you read-only access to the actual Nature paper (instead of just the abstract) through a new sharing initiative.

      That's brilliant, thanks!

  7. thanks Sou saw bomb and hoped it would be about the BLOB, did you all read that one at willards ?

    1. The one where they read the words "not caused by climate change"' and went berserk? :)


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