A disturbing article from National Geographic goes into detail about another loss in the war against climate change; the defrosting of the Arctic permafrost and the release of gasses into the atmosphere from the ice melt. In the article, a team of scientists study the ground of the black spruce forests along the Tanana River in central Alaska. The ground was originally hard soil and packed with ice, has become muddy as temperatures in the region rise to record highs.
As the temperatures rise, the melting ice in the soil will release gasses into the atmosphere that will double the expected contribution of the melting permafrost to the rising temperatures.
From the article:
Abrupt thaw is not a cause for alarm, the scientists say. Permafrost will still produce fewer emissions than our own burning of coal, oil and natural gas. David Lawrence, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said that—until now— thawing permafrost had been expected to amplify human-caused climate change by about 10 percent.
But doubling that figure is significant because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the global organization that estimates how quickly we need to stop burning fossil fuels to keep the worst warming at bay—has not taken permafrost fully into account.
In other words, if we hope to hold warming to 2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius), we’ll have to make the shift to renewable energy faster than we think.
The carbon in the permafrost, mostly decayed animal and plant matter, which will loosen up as the ice melts. In addition, the ground that was once held stable by the permafrost becomes more muddy and dangerous. And when the changes happen, far more of the carbon held in those ice-thick lands gets released as methane, which can be at least 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.
This change affects how the world needs to anticipate the crisis and speed up the rate at which we transition to environmentally friendly energy.
Computer models that project how emissions affect global temperature changes are only just beginning to simulate permafrost thaw. The last major IPCC assessment in 2014 didn’t incorporate permafrost emissions in future temperature targets at all. In 2018, the IPCC’s special report on how to cap temperature rise at 2.7 degrees F said global fossil fuel emissions needed to be cut 45 percent by 2030 and completely by 2050. That report used a simplified model to estimate gradual thaw—and didn’t incorporate abrupt thaw at all.
Scientists know that must change. “We need to be setting our policy targets now” to begin hastening the transitioning to cleaner energy, Turetsky says. If governments don’t account for permafrost feedbacks, “how realistic are our projections?”