Not-So-Permafrost: Big Thaw of Arctic Soil May Unleash Runaway Warming

New estimates show that frozen Arctic soil contains far more potential greenhouse gas than previously recognized–and could speed climate change as it meltsDamage to buildings

“Drunken” trees listing wildly, cracked highways and sinkholes—all are visible signs of thawing Arctic permafrost. When this frozen soil warms, it releases carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as microbes start to thrive on the organic material it contains—a potentially potent source of uncontrollable climate change.

Now new research published in Nature Geoscience shows that such frozen Arctic soil holds nearly twice as much of the organic material that gives rise to planet-warming greenhouse gases as previously estimated.

“When the air temperature rises two to three degrees, the Arctic tundra would switch from a carbon sink to a carbon source,” says soil scientist Chien-Lu Ping of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The greater the carbon stores, the greater the impact it causes,” including even faster warming in the already changing Arctic.

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