Tundra dangers

Toronto Graffiti

One of the biggest climatic dangers out there is that warming in the Arctic will melt the permafrost. The tundra is heavily laden with methane – a potent greenhouse gas. In total, the ten million square kilometres contain about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon (3,670 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide). The permafrost contains more carbon dioxide equivalent than the entire atmosphere at present.

If even a fraction of a percent of that gets released every year, it would blow our carbon budget. Even with enormous cuts in human emissions, the planet would keep on warming. Right now, humanity is emitting about 8 gigatonnes of carbon a year, on track to hit 11 gigatonnes by 2020. If we were to stabilize at that level, emitting 11 gigatonnes a year until 2100, the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will surpass 1,000 parts per million, creating the certainty of a vastly transformed world and a very strong possibility of the end of human civilization.

As such, it is vital to stop climate change before the planet warms sufficiently to start melting permafrost. This is especially challenging given that warming in the Arctic is more pronounced than warming elsewhere. There is also the additional challenge of the sea-ice feedback loop, wherein the replacement of reflective ice with absorptive water increases warming.

The actions necessary to prevent that are eminently possible. Unfortunately, people have not yet developed the will to implement them to anything like the degree necessary. Hopefully, the ongoing UNFCCC process for producing a Kyoto successor will help set us along that path before it becomes fantastically more difficult and expensive to act.

[Update: 4 February 2009] Here is a post on the danger of self-amplifying, runaway climate change: Is runaway climate change possible? Hansen’s take.

[Update: 19 February 2010] See also: The threat from methane in the North.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “Tundra dangers”

  1. Hi Milan,
    This is an unsolicited suggestion:
    Your photos are very good, but it’s hard to look at them with the respect they deserve because they seem out of context with the content of your posts.

    It seems as if they should illustrate the following text, and they almost never do.

    I think you could solve this dilemma by providing a title or a caption for the photos, separate from the title of the post. Then we’d know the photo is a separate entity and we could enjoy it without expecting it to illustrate the post.

    I’m just trying to help :)


  2. Robin,

    I definitely appreciate the point you are making.

    That said, it is tough enough to produce both a decent photo and an interesting post every day. Asking for a decent photo that compliments an interesting post is asking too much. After all, blogging and photography are both just hobbies.

    That said, thanks a lot for the comment.

  3. Methane rise points to wetlands
    By Richard Black
    Environment correspondent, BBC News website

    Higher atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas methane noted last year are probably related to emissions from wetlands, especially around the Arctic.

  4. I’m melting
    Breaking news: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss

    A major new study published Friday in Geophysical Research Letters by leading tundra experts has found “Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss.” The lead author is David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who I interviewed for my book and recently interviewed again via email about his recent work. The study’s ominous conclusion:

    We find that simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland

  5. 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon (36,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide)

    To go from GtC to GtCO2 multiply by 44/12 = 3.67

    As such, 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon are akin to 3,670 gigatonnes of CO2.

  6. Will natural methane emissions enhance
    man made emissions?

    Substantial quantities of methane are emitted
    naturally from wetlands, and this emission is
    expected to change as wetlands change. Changing
    rainfall patterns will cause some wetland areas to
    increase in extent, others to decrease, and increases
    in temperature will act to increase emissions from
    wetlands. One version of the Hadley Centre climate
    model includes a description of wetland methane,
    and this predicts an increase in natural wetland
    emissions by the end of the century equivalent to
    the amount of man-made emissions projected for
    that time, thus leading to a more rapid rise in
    methane concentrations, and hence warming.

    On the other hand, the chemical reactions in the
    atmosphere which destroy methane are expected to
    become more efficient in future, largely as a result
    of increased water vapour. This will act as a
    negative feedback on methane amounts.

    Methane is also stored in permafrost, and it is likely
    that some of this will be released as surface warming
    extends into the permafrost and begins to melt it.

    Finally, huge amounts of methane are locked up in
    methane hydrates (methane clathrates) in the oceans.
    They are currently at high enough pressures and
    temperatures to make them very stable. However,
    penetration of greenhouse effect heating into the
    oceans may destabilise them and allow some of the
    methane to escape into the atmosphere. The
    potential for this to happen is very poorly understood.
    There is concern that this may be another positive
    feedback not yet included in models, although there
    is little evidence for this from the behaviour of
    methane during the large temperature swings
    between ice ages and interglacials, and in particular
    over the last 50,000 years.

    Climate change and the greenhouse effect
    A briefing from the Hadley Centre
    December 2005

  7. Arctic tundra’s thaw speeds climate change, UBC prof says

    Greenhouse gases being released faster than predicted from Arctic, as vegetation covers region’s surface and traps more of the sun’s heat

    David Ljunggren

    Ottawa — Reuters News Agency Last updated on Wednesday, Jul. 29, 2009 06:34PM EDT

    Regions of Arctic tundra around the world are heating up very rapidly, releasing more greenhouse gases than predicted and boosting the process of global warming, a leading expert said on Wednesday.

    Professor Greg Henry of the University of British Columbia also said higher temperatures meant larger plants were starting to spread across the tundra, which is usually covered by small shrubs, grasses and lichen. The thicker plant cover means the region is getting darker and absorbing more heat.

    He said tundra covers about 15 per cent of the world’s surface and makes up around 30 per cent of Canadian territory.

    Dr. Henry, who has been working in the Arctic since the early 1980s, said he had measured “a very substantial change” in the tundra over the last three decades, citing greater emissions and plant growth.

  8. The frozen north had another surprise in store. Scientists have long known that permafrost, if it melted, would release carbon, exacerbating global warming, which would melt more permafrost, which would add more to global warming, on and on in a feedback loop. But estimates of how much carbon is locked into Arctic permafrost were, it turns out, woefully off. “It’s about three times as much as was thought, about 1.6 trillion metric tons, which has surprised a lot of people,” says Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “It means the potential for positive feedbacks is greatly increased.” That 1.6 trillion tons is about twice the amount now in the atmosphere. And Schuur’s measurements of how quickly CO2 can come out of permafrost, reported in May, were also a surprise: 1 billion to 2 billion tons per year. Cars and light trucks in the U.S. emit about 300 million tons per year.

  9. ‘Bubbling cauldrons of gas’

    Unimaginable quantities of methane — a greenhouse gas 20 to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — are stored underground in the Arctic. Some of it is leaking out

    Bob Weber
    The Canadian Press
    Last updated on Sunday, Sep. 06, 2009 11:11AM EDT
    You can see them from shore along the Arctic coast or even in some northern lakes — seething domes of water churned up by gas escaping from deep below.

    “The largest ones have the feeling of a hot tub,” says Scott Dallimore, a scientist with Natural Resources Canada.

    “They look like floating hot tubs out in the water. They’re bubbling cauldrons of gas. They’re quite spectacular. ”

    “They’re pure methane.”

    And that’s the worry.

    Unimaginable quantities of methane — a greenhouse gas 20 to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — are stored underground in the Arctic. Some of it is leaking out.

    The consequence of all that seeping methane has become one of the biggest questions in climate science.

  10. “But one thing is certain: The fact it hasn’t been factored into previous global warming predictions means forecasts even as recent as the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change are too conservative.

    “[Methane] was not considered in any of the predictions at all,” says Andrew Weaver, a Canadian researcher and one of the IPCC authors.

    Methane, a carbon compound, is stored in organic material frozen into permafrost and in vast underwater deposits called hydrates — a strange, slushy blend of methane and water.

    Estimates of how much is out there are vague. There could be anywhere between 500 to 10,000 gigatonnes of carbon in the hydrates and another 7.5 to 400 gigatonnes in the permafrost.

    But some say there’s enough carbon in underground methane — including large deposits under tundra lakes in the Mackenzie Delta and along Canada’s Beaufort Sea coast — to equal the carbon from all the Earth’s remaining deposits of oil, coal and natural gas combined. Last week, a World Wildlife Fund report called methane the globe’s single biggest climate threat.”

  11. Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
    by Richard A. Kerr on May 10, 2010 6:11 PM

    Methane-trapping ice of the kind that has frustrated the first attempt to contain oil gushing offshore of Louisiana may have been a root cause of the blowout that started the spill in the first place, according to University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Bea, who has extensive access to BP p.l.c. documents on the incident. If methane hydrates are eventually implicated, the U.S. oil and gas industry would have to tread even more lightly as it pushes farther and farther offshore in search of energy.

    Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch. One liter of water ice that has trapped individual methane molecules in the “cages” of its crystal structure can release 168 liters of methane gas when the ice decomposes. Bea, who has 55 years of experience assessing risks in and around offshore operations, says “there was concern at this location for gas hydrates. We’re out to the [water depth] where it ought to be there.” The deeper the water, the greater the pressure, which when high enough can keep hydrates stable well below the sea floor.

    And there were signs that drillers did encounter hydrates. About a month before the blowout, a “kick” of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. “Something under high pressure was being encountered,” says Bea—apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions.

  12. As the Arctic warms, greenhouse gases will be released from thawing permafrost faster and at significantly higher levels than previous estimates, according to survey results from 41 international scientists published in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Nature. Permafrost thaw will release approximately the same amount of carbon as deforestation, say the authors, but the effect on climate will be 2.5 times bigger because emissions include methane, which has a greater effect on warming than carbon dioxide.

    The survey, led by University of Florida researcher Edward Schuur and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Benjamin Abbott, asked climate experts what percentage of the surface permafrost is likely to thaw, how much carbon will be released and how much of that carbon will be methane. The authors estimate that the amount of carbon released by 2100 will be 1.7 to 5.2 times larger than reported in recent modeling studies, which used a similar warming scenario.

  13. Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw

    Edward A. G. Schuur
    Benjamin Abbott

    (01 December 2011)

    Published online
    30 November 2011

    Northern soils will release huge amounts of carbon in a warmer world, say Edward A. G. Schuur, Benjamin Abbott and the Permafrost Carbon Network.

  14. The climate is warming in the arctic at twice the rate of the rest of the globe creating a longer growing season and increased plant growth, which captures atmospheric carbon, and thawing permafrost, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) Assistant Scientist Sue Natali and colleagues engineered first-of-a-kind warming experiments in the field to determine net gains or losses in carbon emissions. The study entitled “Permafrost degradation stimulates carbon loss from experimentally warmed tundra,” published in the journal Ecology found that growing season gains do not offset carbon emissions from permafrost thaw. According to Dr. Natali, “Our results show that while permafrost degradation increased carbon uptake during the growing season, in line with decadal trends of ‘greening’ tundra, warming and permafrost thaw also enhanced winter respiration, which doubled annual carbon losses.”

  15. The methane mystery
    Scientists struggle to explain a worrying rise in atmospheric methane
    A potent greenhouse gas

    One big worry is the Arctic. The soil there contains methane equivalent to 2.3 times all the carbon dioxide humanity has emitted since the 1800s. If it were released it could set off a vast new burst of global warming. But methane-rich Siberian air shows no sign of rising any faster than the rest of the world.

  16. Permafrost is warming at a global scale

    Permafrost warming has the potential to amplify global climate change, because when frozen sediments thaw it unlocks soil organic carbon. Yet to date, no globally consistent assessment of permafrost temperature change has been compiled. Here we use a global data set of permafrost temperature time series from the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost to evaluate temperature change across permafrost regions for the period since the International Polar Year (2007–2009). During the reference decade between 2007 and 2016, ground temperature near the depth of zero annual amplitude in the continuous permafrost zone increased by 0.39 ± 0.15 °C. Over the same period, discontinuous permafrost warmed by 0.20 ± 0.10 °C. Permafrost in mountains warmed by 0.19 ± 0.05 °C and in Antarctica by 0.37 ± 0.10 °C. Globally, permafrost temperature increased by 0.29 ± 0.12 °C. The observed trend follows the Arctic amplification of air temperature increase in the Northern Hemisphere. In the discontinuous zone, however, ground warming occurred due to increased snow thickness while air temperature remained statistically unchanged.

  17. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra


    Permafrost soils in boreal and Arctic ecosystems store almost twice as much carbon1,2 as is currently present in the atmosphere3. Permafrost thaw and the microbial decomposition of previously frozen organic carbon is considered one of the most likely positive climate feedbacks from terrestrial ecosystems to the atmosphere in a warmer world1,2,4,5,6,7. The rate of carbon release from permafrost soils is highly uncertain, but it is crucial for predicting the strength and timing of this carbon-cycle feedback effect, and thus how important permafrost thaw will be for climate change this century and beyond1,2,4,5,6,7. Sustained transfers of carbon to the atmosphere that could cause a significant positive feedback to climate change must come from old carbon, which forms the bulk of the permafrost carbon pool that accumulated over thousands of years8,9,10,11. Here we measure net ecosystem carbon exchange and the radiocarbon age of ecosystem respiration in a tundra landscape undergoing permafrost thaw12 to determine the influence of old carbon loss on ecosystem carbon balance. We find that areas that thawed over the past 15 years had 40 per cent more annual losses of old carbon than minimally thawed areas, but had overall net ecosystem carbon uptake as increased plant growth offset these losses. In contrast, areas that thawed decades earlier lost even more old carbon, a 78 per cent increase over minimally thawed areas; this old carbon loss contributed to overall net ecosystem carbon release despite increased plant growth. Our data document significant losses of soil carbon with permafrost thaw that, over decadal timescales, overwhelms increased plant carbon uptake13,14,15 at rates that could make permafrost a large biospheric carbon source in a warmer world.

  18. These risks are re-emphasised in a paper just published in Nature Reviews Earth and Environment. It warns that warming of the top three metres of permafrost alone could result in the release of 624m tonnes of carbon a year by 2100, a figure similar to the current emissions of Canada or Saudi Arabia. But a thawing Arctic poses other, more immediate, problems. Another paper published in the same journal highlights the threat posed to circumpolar infrastructure as the ground beneath it thaws.

    The conclusions drawn by lead author Jan Hjort, of the University of Oulu, in Finland, are stark. Of the 120,000 buildings, 40,000km of roads and 9,500km of pipelines currently built on permafrost, up to half are expected to be at high risk by 2060. By then, he estimates, the bill for maintenance could exceed $35bn dollars a year.


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