Sunday, 16 December, 2018

New Arctic Lakes Could Soon Be a Major Source of Atmospheric Methane

Abrupt Thawing of Permafrost Beneath Arctic Lakes could Fuel Climate Change Credit Clayton Elder
Sandra Phillips | 19 August, 2018, 23:54

WASHINGTON-A new study found that a relatively known process called abrupt thawing might speed up Arctic permafrost's expected gradual thawing and then the release of greenhouse gases.

For the study, Katey Walter, lead author of the study, and her colleagues studied several thermokarst lakes in Alaska and Siberia over a 12-year long period. As Earth's climate continues to warm, that carbon has begun to leach into the atmosphere, the result of microbes waking up and digesting once-frozen organic materials.

Current models attribute just 20 percent of the permafrost thawing in this century to methane.

Also germane to the discussion is the fact that this region under the Arctic landscape contains a huge reserve of organic carbon that has, until recently, been safely contained by the frozen soil of the permafrost. The mechanism of this rapid thawing process indicates that this ancient carbon releases 125 to 190 percent faster than it does from simple, gradual thawing by itself.

Using a combination of computer models and field measurements, Walter Anthony and an global team of United States and German researchers found that abrupt thawing more than doubles previous estimates of permafrost-derived greenhouse warming.

So, we measured the carbon emissions in 72 different locations in 11 thermokarst lakes in areas of Siberia and Alaska, and in five places without lakes, to understand, how much is a greenhouse gas, and also with the objective of measuring the age of contained carbon. The research team suggests that even the climate models which estimate only moderate warming for this century should take these emissions into account.

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Moreover, the team also found that this abrupt thawing was still a concern even under a scenario in which humans tried to rein in their greenhouse-gas production and slow climate change.

The gradual thaw process was thought to have minimal effect as thawed ground would stimulate the growth of plants, which counterbalance the carbon released into the atmosphere by consuming it during photosynthesis.

According to experts, the most serious threat to the climate - not greenhouse gases produced by humanity, and the thawing of ancient ice under thermokarst lakes. Thermokarst lakes form when substantial amounts of ice in the deep soil melts to liquid water.

Because the same amount of ice takes up more volume than water, the land surface slumps and subsides, creating a small depression that then fills with water from rain, snow melt and ground ice melt, according to the study. Additional support by the National Science Foundation allowed scientists from UAF and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys to collect data on permafrost location, thaw and associated greenhouse gas release from lakes in Interior Alaska's Goldstream Valley. The release of that surface permafrost soil carbon is often offset by an increased growth in vegetation. In addition, they used the field measurements to evaluate how well their model simulated the natural field conditions.

Emissions from thermokarst lakes aren't now factored into global climate models because their small size makes individual lakes hard to include.

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