December 2012

Volume 21, Number 12

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Thawing Permafrost Could Double Earth's Atmospheric Carbon

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Climate change could cause melting permafrost to double Earth's atmospheric carbon. In this photo, a road has damaged the insulating top layer of permafrost, allowing the layers below to melt and sink.

Photo: NOAA Photo Library

By Erin Weaver

Thawing of Arctic permafrost could double Earth’s atmospheric carbon in the next century, according to a new field study in Geophysical Research Letters. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey studied permafrost soils vulnerable to thawing and subsequent decomposition in a warming climate; they estimate the soils could release up to 850 billion tons of carbon and 44 billion tons of nitrogen, along with some methane.

In addition to disrupting aquatic ecosystems, this would contribute to further warming in what could become a runaway process. The scientists hope the new numbers will be taken into consideration by the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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November 29, 2012