‘Abrupt thaw’ of permafrost beneath lakes could significantly affect climate change models

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface

During thawing of permafrost soils contained bacteria resume activity and eat any organic material, which can be reached, eventually producing carbon dioxide and methane - potent greenhouse gases. Combining the results of these two field works with the remote-sensing data of the changes that took place over the past two years in the lake, the research team determined that the "abrupt thaw" beneath these lakes could potentially release large amounts of permafrost carbon in the atmosphere this century- which might lead to the doubling of release from terrestrial landscapes by the 2050s. These lakes form when thawing permafrost causes the ground to slump, creating a depression that collects rain and snowmelt and perpetuates a cycle of further permafrost thaw.

"We have no 200 or 300 years waiting for vast carbon emissions from the eternal ice, says the study's lead author Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, in his report to NASA".

In the case of these newly-formed lakes, the permafrost will thaw deeper and more rapidly.

Moreover, the team also found that this abrupt thawing was still a concern even under a scenario in which humans tried to rein in their greenhouse-gas production and slow climate change.

A new NASA-funded study focuses on a mechanism that could accelerate the release of this atmospheric carbon, the result of thermokarst lakes. She has worked as a senior manager in public relations and communications for major telecommunication companies, and is the former Deputy Director for Media Relations with the Modern Coalition.


Using a combination of computer models and field measurements, Walter Anthony and an worldwide team of U.S. and German researchers found that abrupt thawing more than doubles previous estimates of permafrost-derived greenhouse warming. "For decades, can be formed very deep thermal holes to a depth of from several to tens of meters", - says Walter Anthony.

These ancient greenhouse gases, produced from microbes chewing through ancient carbon stored in the soil, range from 2,000 to 43,000 years old.

Methane bubbles are trapped in the ice on a pond near Fairbanks, Alaska. In the course of my life and the lives of my children, they will gradually grow. "Over a few decades, thermokarst lake growth releases substantially more carbon than lake loss can lock in permafrost again [when the lake bottoms refreeze]".

But when that happens below thermokarst lakes, the process is even grimmer because the water at the surface speeds up the melting below. "When the lakes form, they flash-thaw these permafrost areas", said Walter Anthony, an associate professor with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center.

Because the thermokarst lakes are relatively small and scattered throughout the Arctic landscapes, computer models of their behavior are not now incorporated into global climate models. "But by the middle to end of the century the permafrost-carbon feedback should be about equivalent to the second strongest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, which is land use change", she said.

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