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Gradual Release of Permafrost May Allow Society to Adapt

First Posted: Apr 08, 2015 02:32 PM EDT

The release of greenhouse gases from permafrost may not be as bad as originally predicted. Scientists have discovered that the gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gases from permafrost soils may afford society more time to adapt to environmental changes.

"Twenty years ago there was very little research about the possible rate of permafrost carbon release," said A. David McGuire, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In 2011, we assembled an international team of scientists into the Permafrost Carbon Network to synthesize existing research and answer the questions of how much permafrost carbon is out there, how vulnerable to decomposition it is once it's thawed, and what are the forms in which it's released into the atmosphere."

Permafrost soils contain twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere. As the climate warms, this permafrost thaws and the breakdown of carbon increases and can accelerate the release of carbon dioxide and methane.

Permafrost has warmed nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years. While researchers once thought that carbon would be released in a big "bomb" and significantly accelerate climate warming, it appears that this may not be the case.

"The data from our team's syntheses don't support the permafrost carbon bomb view," said McGuire. "What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle."

The findings reveal that a gradual release is the more likely scenario instead of a large "bomb." That doesn't mean, though, that the situation isn't still serious.

"If society's goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under two degrees C and we haven't taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal," said McGuire.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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