The Heat Is Online

Methane Escaping Five Times Faster Than Previously Thought

Study Says Methane a New Climate Threat

The Associated Press, Sept,7, 2006


WASHINGTON  Global warming gases trapped in the soil are bubbling out of the thawing permafrost in amounts far higher than previously thought and may trigger what researchers warn is a climate time bomb.

Methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide -- is being released from the permafrost at a rate five times faster than thought, according to a study being published Thursday in the journal Nature. The findings are based on new, more accurate measuring techniques.

"The effects can be huge," said lead author Katey Walter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks said. "It's coming out a lot and there's a lot more to come out."

Scientists worry about a global warming vicious cycle that was not part of their already gloomy climate forecast: Warming already under way thaws permafrost, soil that has been continuously frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases reach the atmosphere and help trap heat on Earth in the greenhouse effect. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost and so on.

"The higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost we melt, the more tendency it is to become a more vicious cycle," said Chris Field, director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the study. "That's the thing that is scary about this whole thing. There are lots of mechanisms that tend to be self-perpetuating and relatively few that tend to shut it off."

Some scientists say this vicious cycle is already under way, but others disagree.

Most of the methane-releasing permafrost is in Siberia. Another study earlier this summer in the journal Science found that the amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost -- called yedoma -- is much more prevalent than originally thought and may be 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each year by the burning of fossil fuels.

It won't all come out at once or even over several decades, but if temperatures increase, then the methane and carbon dioxide will escape the soil, scientists say.

The permafrost issue has caused a quiet buzz of concern among climate scientists and geologists. Specialists in Arctic climate are coming up with research plans to study the permafrost effect, which is not well understood or observed, said Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study group of 300 scientists.

"It's kind of like a slow-motion time bomb," said Ted Schuur, a professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of Florida and co-author of the study in Science.

Most of the yedoma is in little-studied areas of northern and eastern Siberia. What makes that permafrost special is that much of it lies under lakes; the carbon below gets released as methane. Carbon beneath dry permafrost is released as carbon dioxide.

Using special underwater bubble traps, Walter and her colleagues found giant hot spots of bubbling methane that were never measured before because they were hard to reach.

"I don't think it can be easily stopped; we'd really have to have major cooling for it to stop," Walter said.

Scientists aren't quite sure whether methane or carbon dioxide is worse. Methane is far more powerful in trapping heat, but only lasts about a decade before it dissipates into carbon dioxide and other chemicals. Carbon dioxide traps heat for about a century.

"The bottom line is it's better if it stays frozen in the ground," Schuur said. "But we're getting to the point where it's going more and more into the atmosphere."

Vladimir Romanovsky, geophysics professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said he thinks the big methane or carbon dioxide release hasn't started yet, but it's coming. In Alaska and Canada -- which have far less permafrost than Siberia -- it's closer to happening, he said. Already, the Alaskan permafrost is reaching the thawing point in many areas.

Source: Associated Press

 

Gases escaping permafrost alarm scientists

The Associated Press, Sept. 6, 2006

 

WASHINGTON - Global warming gases trapped in the soil are bubbling out of thawing permafrost in amounts far higher than previously thought and may trigger what researchers warn is a climate time bomb.

 

Methane - a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide - is being released from permafrost at a rate five times faster than thought, according to a study being published today in the journal Nature. The findings are based on new, more accurate measuring techniques.

 

"The effects can be huge," said lead author Katey Walter of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "It's coming out a lot and there's a lot more to come out."

 

Scientists worry about a vicious global warming cycle that was not part of their already-gloomy climate forecast: Warming already under way thaws permafrost, soil that has been frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases reach the atmosphere and help trap heat on Earth. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost, and the cycle continues.

Some scientists say the cycle is already under way, but others disagree.

 

Most of the methane-releasing permafrost is in Siberia. Another study earlier this summer in the journal Science found that the amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost - called yedoma - may be 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each year by the burning of fossil fuels.

 

It won't all come out at once or even over several decades, but if temperatures increase, then the methane and carbon dioxide will escape the soil, scientists say.

 

The permafrost issue has caused a quiet buzz of concern among climate scientists and geologists. Specialists on the Arctic climate are coming up with research plans to study the permafrost effect, which is not well understood or observed, said Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study group of 300 scientists.

 

"It's kind of like a slow-motion time bomb," said Ted Schuur, a professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of Florida and co-author of the study in Science.

 

Most of the yedoma is in little-studied areas of northern and eastern Siberia. What makes that permafrost special is that much of it lies under lakes; the carbon below gets released as methane. Carbon beneath dry permafrost is released as carbon dioxide.

 

Using special underwater bubble traps, Walter and her colleagues found giant hot spots of bubbling methane that were never measured before because they were hard to reach.

 

"I don't think it can be easily stopped; we'd really have to have major cooling for it to stop," Walter said.

 

Copyright 2006 Associated Press

Letter

 

Nature 443, 71-75(7 September 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature05040; Received 5 December 2005; Accepted 3 July 2006

Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming

K. M. Walter1, S. A. Zimov2, J. P. Chanton3, D. Verbyla4 and F. S. Chapin, III1

Large uncertainties in the budget of atmospheric methane, an important greenhouse gas, limit the accuracy of climate change projections1,2. Thaw lakes in North Siberia are known to emit methane3, but the magnitude of these emissions remains uncertain because most methane is released through ebullition (bubbling), which is spatially and temporally variable. Here we report a new method of measuring ebullition and use it to quantify methane emissions from two thaw lakes in North Siberia. We show that ebullition accounts for 95 per cent of methane emissions from these lakes, and that methane flux from thaw lakes in our study region may be five times higher than previously estimated3. Extrapolation of these fluxes indicates that thaw lakes in North Siberia emit 3.8 teragrams of methane per year, which increases present estimates of methane emissions from northern wetlands (< 640 teragrams per year; refs 1, 2, 46) by between 10 and 63 per cent. We find that thawing permafrost along lake margins accounts for most of the methane released from the lakes, and estimate that an expansion of thaw lakes between 1974 and 2000, which was concurrent with regional warming, increased methane emissions in our study region by 58 per cent. Furthermore, the Pleistocene age (35,26042,900 years) of methane emitted from hotspots along thawing lake margins indicates that this positive feedback to climate warming has led to the release of old carbon stocks previously stored in permafrost.

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  1. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA
  2. Northeast Science Station, Cherskii 678830, Russia
  3. Department of Oceanography, Florida State University, Florida 32306, USA
  4. Forest Science Department, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

Correspondence to: K. M. Walter1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to K.M.W. (Email: ftkmw1@uaf.edu).

Received 5 December 2005 | Accepted 3 July 2006

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