Schuur said the researchers estimated the carbon contained in permafrost to a depth of three meters, two meters deeper than many earlier estimates. Although permafrost depths vary greatly with location, basing the estimate on three-meter depth "better acknowledges the true size of the permafrost carbon pool," Schuur said.
The new estimate is important because it mirrors other climate change science suggesting that at a certain tipping point, natural processes could contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gases, supplementing human-influenced, industrial processes that release fossil fuel carbon, Schuur said.
"There are relatively few people living in the permafrost zone," Schuur said. "But we could have significant emissions of carbon from thawing permafrost in these remote regions."
How fast the permafrost would release its carbon is a hugely important question.
Schuur said the burning of fossil fuels contributes about 8.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Deforestation of the tropical forests and replacement of the forest with pasture or other agriculture is thought to add about 1.5 billion tons per year. How much permafrost will add will depend on how fast it thaws, but Schuur said his research indicates the figure could approach .8-1.1 billion tons per year in the future if permafrost continues to thaw.
With the Arctic warming and permafrost thawing, shrubs and trees are likely to grow on ground formerly occupied by tundra indeed, such a transformation has already been observed in parts of Alaska, where some arctic tundra is becoming shrub land.
Because plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, it might appear they could compensate for whatever carbon is released by the thawed permafrost. But Schuur said the amount of carbon stored in the permafrost is far greater
|Contact: Ted Schuur|
University of Florida