Ancient carbon trapped in Arctic permafrost is extremely sensitive to sunlight and, if exposed to the surface when long-frozen soils melt and collapse, can release climate-warming carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere much faster than previously thought.
University of Michigan ecologist and aquatic biogeochemist George Kling and his colleagues studied places in Arctic Alaska where permafrost is melting and is causing the overlying land surface to collapse, forming erosional holes and landslides and exposing long-buried soils to sunlight.
They found that sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon into carbon dioxide gas by at least 40 percent compared to carbon that remains in the dark. The team, led by Rose Cory of the University of North Carolina, reported its findings in an article to be published online Feb. 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Until now, we didn’t really know how reactive this ancient permafrost carbon would be — whether it would be converted into heat-trapping gases quickly or not,” said Kling, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. EEB graduate student Jason Dobkowski is a co-author of the paper.
“What we can say now is that regardless of how fast the thawing of the Arctic permafrost occurs, the conversion of this soil carbon to carbon dioxide and its release into the atmosphere will be faster than we previously thought,” Kling said. “That means permafrost carbon is potentially a huge factor that will help determine how fast the Earth warms.”
Tremendous stores of organic carbon have been frozen in Arctic permafrost soils for thousands of years. If thawed and released as carbon dioxide gas, this vast carbon repository has the potential to double the amount of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the atmosphere on a timescale similar to humanity’s inputs of carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels.
That creates the potential for a positive feedback: As the Earth warms due to the human-caused release of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, frozen Arctic soils also warm, thaw and release more carbon dioxide. The added carbon dioxide accelerates Earth’s warming, which further accelerates the thawing of Arctic soils and the release of even more carbon dioxide.
Recent climate change has increased soil temperatures in the Arctic and has thawed large areas of permafrost. Just how much permafrost will thaw in the future and how fast the carbon dioxide will be released is a topic of heated debate among climate scientists.