Published: Sun, August 19, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

‘Abrupt thaw’ of permafrost beneath lakes could significantly affect climate change models

"We have no 200 or 300 years waiting for vast carbon emissions from the eternal ice, says the study's lead author Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, in his report to NASA".

Even more, these water bodies accelerate the permafrost meltdown ensuring the proper ecosystem for the development of microbes that generate methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases that, at their turn, accelerate the climate change.

Its impact on the climate is an influx of permafrost-derived methane into the atmosphere in the mid-21st century, which is not now accounted for in climate projections.

For centuries, a massive store of carbon has been locked underground in the Arctic's permanently frozen soil known as permafrost.

The abrupt thawing takes place under a certain type of Arctic lake, known as a thermokarst lake that forms as permafrost thaws, according to the study published on Friday in the journal Nature Communications.

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface. 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.

Additionally, Walter Antony and a group of USA and German researchers used field measurements and computer models to determine "that abrupt thawing more than doubles previous estimates of permafrost-derived greenhouse warming".

The team behind the new research measured carbon release at 72 different locations on 11 thermokarst lakes across Siberia and Alaska, plus five locations without lakes, to calculate how much greenhouse gas was being produced and how old the carbon it contained was.

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The findings also suggest that - even if we reduce global carbon emissions as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - large methane releases from the process of abrupt thawing are likely to occur.

However, in the presence of thermokarst lakes, permafrost thaws deeper and more quickly.

These lakes are formed when the warm soils melt the ground ice, which leads to the permafrost's collapsing and forming pools of 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.

Permafrost thaw may accelerate, and it is more devastating and potent than scientists originally thought.

Emissions from thermokarst lakes aren't now factored into global climate models because their small size makes individual lakes hard to include. Then, they used this data to make sure the models they were building were on the right track.

However, Walter Anthony believes including them in future models is important for understanding the role of permafrost in the global carbon budget. "When the lakes form, they flash-thaw these permafrost areas", said Walter Anthony, an associate professor with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center.

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