Thawing Arctic permafrost has the potential to significantly accelerate climate change, a collaborative study between the University of Florida and Northern Arizona University shows. Fifteen years of data show that permafrost is degrading and, as a result, it is increasing carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
As permafrost, frozen ground for at least two continuous years, thaws, plant matter frozen for thousands of years begins to decompose by microbes, releasing carbon dioxide.
Global warming has caused this degradation, scientists say. In the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, warming occurs at two to three times the global average, a phenomenon referred to as arctic amplification.
This creates a vicious cycle.
“We are releasing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption, leading to global warming. Global warming causes permafrost to thaw, releasing more carbon dioxide, that can lead to more global warming,” said Rosvel Bracho, UF/IFAS Assistant Research Scientist in the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatic Sciences.
With the thawing process now in motion, it may be hard to break the cycle, Bracho said. Moreover, carbon dioxide emitted in the past is still affecting permafrost today.
“The changes to the permafrost are from things we cannot take back in a very long time. By now, any change we make will last to be seen, but it is still possible. Even if we cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly, it will take a long time to see a difference,” Bracho said
Around the turn of the millennium, researchers first noticed that patches of the landscape were sinking at a research site in Alaska that is representative of the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra environment. They wanted to know why. They related the permafrost changes to the mean annual temperature in the region, became interested in the possible changes in carbon dynamics of warming permafrost and began the research study in 2004.
Data is collected 10 times per second via a tower that runs year-round. In the summer, the system runs off solar power and, in the winter, wind power. During peak winter season, the way to access the tower is by dog sleds and other winter transportation systems.
“From previous research, we knew that this location was releasing carbon, but now we have data through many winter seasons, which we have never been able to collect before,” Bracho said. “New technology allowed us to collect data through the really harsh winter and we realized that the site releases more carbon than was previously reported or thought to.”
There are tens of research sites like this across the Arctic, and more are being installed. The goal is to develop an understanding of just how much carbon is emitted from the region. If carbon loss from thawing permafrost at this site exists across the region, this may significantly contribute to climate change.
“This is a global situation,” Bracho said. “Whatever we do here to preserve the environment and reduce our carbon footprint will have an impact here, there and everywhere. This includes reducing energy consumption or implementing renewable energy sources. All of these things, step by step, will have an impact.”