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.
The study, which was published August 15 in the journal Nature Communications, focuses on the carbon released by thawing permafrost beneath thermokarst lakes. If this happens, the thermokarst lakes may soon be a major source of an influx of methane into our atmosphere. The Arctic landscape stores one of the largest natural reservoirs of organic carbon in the world in its frozen soils. Thermokarst lakes form when substantial amounts of ice in the deep soil melts to liquid water.
The effort, conducted by a team of US and German researchers, is part of a 10-year NASA-funded project to better understand climate change effects on the Arctic.
The team found that the release of greenhouse gases beneath these thermokarst lakes is quite rapid than what scientists have observed in the past.
In the case of these newly-formed lakes, the permafrost will thaw deeper and more rapidly. Permafrost in terrestrial environments generally experiences shallow seasonal thawing over longer time spans.
"While lake change has been studied for many regions, the understanding that lake loss and lake gain have a very different outcome for carbon fluxes is new", said co-author Guido Grosse of AWI. "Over a few decades, thermokarst lake growth releases substantially more carbon than lake loss can lock in permafrost again [when the lake bottoms refreeze]". "When the lakes form, they flash-thaw these permafrost areas", said Walter Anthony, an associate professor with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center. However, the study's authors show that these lakes are hotspots of permafrost carbon release.
Because the thermokarst lakes are relatively small and scattered throughout the Arctic landscapes, computer models of their behavior are not now incorporated into global climate models. They argue that not including them in global climate models overlooks their feedback effect, which occurs when the release of greenhouse gases from permafrost increases warming. It is a potent greenhouse gas that is nearly 30 times more harmful to the climate than another major greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Current models attribute just 20 percent of the permafrost thawing in this century to methane. By including thermokarst lakes, methane becomes the dominant driver, responsible for 70 to 80 percent of permafrost carbon-caused warming this century. Then, they used this data to make sure the models they were building were on the right track. The study, which was published recently in the journal Nature Communications, talks about the carbon that is released by the thawing permafrost which exists beneath thermokarst lakes. The research team suggests that even the climate models which estimate only moderate warming for this century should take these emissions into account. However, Walter Anthony believes including them in future models is important for understanding the role of permafrost in the global carbon budget.
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