Methane emissions proportional to permafrost carbon thawed in Arctic lakes since the 1950s

A study on the release of old carbon from permafrost thaw was published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The multi-disciplinary research project led by WERC researcher Katey Walter Anthony, an Assistant Professor and Aquatic Ecosystem Ecologist, examined boreal lakes in Alaska, Canada, Sweden, and Siberia where shorelines had expanded as a result of thawing permafrost during the past several decades. Using radiocarbon dating of methane and soil organic carbon, numerical modeling, and remote sensing, the international research team was able to quantify the carbon emitted from thawing permafrost over the last 60 years.

When permafrost (frozen soil) thaws, ancient soil organic matter decomposes and releases organic carbon components such carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to the atmosphere. Due to their heat-trapping properties, these components are known to contribute to further global warming, a mechanism that is referred to as permafrost carbon feedback. The findings from this study suggest that while permafrost carbon feedback has occurred in recent decades, the rates have been relatively small and a dramatic increase has not yet begun.

The study was supported by the NSF ARC-1304823, NASA ABoVE NNX15AU49A, NSF OPP-1107892,
NSF ARCSS 1500931, USDA-Hatch, US, Department of Energy DESC0010580 and ERC.

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