Arctic Permafrost: Climate Wildcard

Carbon dioxide can be released into the air in several ways, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, which add to the greenhouse effect. Through the greenhouse effect, solar energy is trapped in the atmosphere, which eventually warms the temperature of our planet.  There are several different ways the planet and climate can respond to more carbon and warming , however it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen or how quickly global warming will accelerate.

Methane is a greenhouse gas with twenty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. There is a quantity of methane trapped in the Arctic permafrost equivalent to 1,672 billion tons of carbon. The extreme cold temperatures keep the soil in the Arctic permafrost frozen.  However, the Arctic is quickly warming. The carbon equivalent of the amount of methane in the Arctic is 250 times greater than the annual greenhouse gas emitted by the United States. The Arctic’s fast warming is posing a great risk. The permafrost may no longer be permanent and will thus release the trapped methane into the air. If the methane is released into the air, the warming will accelerate which will in turn lead to more Arctic melt leading to more methane emissions continuing in a feedback loop, as referred to by scientists.

This is still a wild card but with time as our scientific tools get better we will better our understanding of systems such as the Arctic permafrost. However, we are currently putting more carbon into the atmosphere at a faster speed than our science is progressing which means we may not have the answer to how the Arctic will react in time.  Hopefully we can slow down our carbon emission before it is too late to reverse the effects of global warming.

Renee Dobrinsky

Topic: Nutrient Cycles and Climate Change

Source: Arctic Permafrost: Climate Wildcard (November 2011) by Bryan Walsh Time Science 

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