Arctic permafrost offers hope and doom for global warming

Many of us have heard the statistic about the amount of carbon that gets locked into the atmosphere each year in a football-field-size piece of dirt. It has so far managed to keep the Earth’s average surface temperature, and thus global warming, stable. But a new paper in Nature Climate Change suggests that this peace could be jeopardized.

The piece of dirt researchers rely on is the Arctic permafrost, a frozen layer of soil that absorbs much of the sun’s energy and, of course, emits heat itself. As the authors note, the buried layer is so deep that it regulates the globe’s global temperature, but now that it is thawing, they believe it could create havoc for humanity. The more permafrost there is to react to the sun’s heat, the higher temperatures will get.

This summer marks the beginning of a debate over how much carbon would need to be released into the atmosphere if you assume that changes in the climate are to be avoided and how much carbon would be required to avoid that. To correct for this, the authors of the Nature Climate Change paper calculated how much carbon would be needed to keep Earth from warming by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and how much carbon could be sequestered by those who would sink in the tundra. They looked at different types of environments and concluded that by the middle of the 21st century, the amount of carbon that would need to be removed from the atmosphere to stabilize the warming would amount to about 800 billion metric tons. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels. For context, that’s roughly equivalent to 1/25th of the current global emissions.

To increase the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, the paper suggests increasing energy production by 68 percent, which is well beyond what’s needed to keep warming to a tolerable level. To keep permafrost carbon locked in the ground, according to the authors, it would be necessary to pump about 39 billion metric tons a year. The authors estimate that the amount of carbon needed to keep permafrost in the ground would double each year in perpetuity (at an annual rate of about 23 percent).

This process, the paper argues, should be feasible for “nearly everyone,” as long as they are willing to take care of this problem from a human perspective. This is not to say that poorer nations have no interest in keeping the permafrost frozen, but that it is more of a practical and economic issue for rich countries. For instance, the Permafrost Global Initiative, a coalition that includes South Korea, Russia, and China, has committed $1 billion to study permafrost and controls. The United States has indicated its support, but has not committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to achieve the reduction needed to keep a one-degree temperature rise or less.

In response to the study, the National Resource Defense Council, an environmental organization, used the paper’s calculations to call on the Trump administration to “insist that oil and gas companies reduce their carbon pollution,” as the NRDC’s Gretchen Goldman noted. This, Goldman said, could help protect the Arctic permafrost from warming at an alarming rate.

Although Goldman was supportive of the paper, she said that that the paper’s results had to be better understood before they could be applied to the U.S.

This is a struggle of different nations, Goldman explained: The United States is unlikely to support an increase in carbon emissions in the Arctic, but Europe could not show up to a meeting on Arctic emissions and not take action.

At the same time, Goldman notes that even taking into account permafrost carbon storage, the study has serious flaws. She was critical of the study’s use of coal to counter warming, for instance, which is very expensive to produce but is a fossil fuel that is accumulating carbon at a much greater rate than any other. But, perhaps more important, Goldman argues that the climate issue is a challenge that afflicts the entire world and it requires the creation of trust, not the imposition of quotas.

“We don’t need to divvy up the world,” Goldman said. “We need to spend more money on fighting climate change.”


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