Environmental Science Division (EVS)a Division of Argonne National Laboratory
Predictive environmental understanding

Rising global temperatures turn northern permafrost region into significant carbon source

February 28, 2020

Permafrost, the perennially frozen subsoil in Earth's northernmost regions, has been collecting and storing plant and animal matter since long before the last Ice Age. The decomposition of some of this organic matter naturally releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere year-round, where it is absorbed by plant growth during the warmer months.

This region, called the northern permafrost region, is difficult to study, and experiments there are few and far between compared with those in warmer and less remote locations. However, a new synthesis that incorporates datasets gathered from more than 100 Arctic study sites by dozens of institutions, including Argonne, suggests that as global temperatures rise, the decomposition of organic matter in permafrost soil during the winter months can be substantially greater than previously thought. The new numbers indicate a release of CO2 that far exceeds the corresponding summer uptake.

Even more importantly, when modeling the carbon balance using the large collection of data, the scientists found that the CO2 released by permafrost soil in the winter could increase 41 percent by 2100 if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change this past October, is the most comprehensive study on this phenomenon to date. It highlights the need for more research on the permafrost region's net CO2 emissions, and it demonstrates the significant impact these emissions could have on the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Read the full article by Savannah Mitchem.

David Cook, a recently retired EVS meteorologist, performs maintenance on an eddy correlation flux measurement tower, operated by the DOE-funded Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program, in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. The tower exemplifies one of several types of instrumentation used to generate the data in this study.
David Cook, a recently retired EVS meteorologist, performs maintenance on an eddy correlation flux measurement tower, operated by the DOE-funded Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program, in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. The tower exemplifies one of several types of instrumentation used to generate the data in this study. [Source: Ryan Sullivan, Argonne National Laboratory]
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