Global-warming ‘time bomb’ seen in Arctic melting

posted Saturday, December 2, 2006        

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

September 7, 2006

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 as powerful as carbon dioxide — is being released from the permafrost at a rate five times as fast as 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-Fairbanks. “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 already is 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 from the soil, scientists say.
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.

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