NASA issued a press release (that should be read in full by clicking the link below) on the CARVE mission which is using a very low flying, specially instrumented, airplane to study the details of Arctic CO2 and methane release. Cutting to the chase - the preliminary results - NASA's PR report is disturbing.
The CARVE science team is busy analyzing data from its first full year of science flights. What they're finding, research scientist Charles Miller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, is both amazing and potentially troubling.Permafrost, which is anything but permanent in a warming climate, stores enormous quantities of carbon. Bacteria convert that carbon to the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane (CH4) when the permafrost melts. Permafrost covers a vast area of the Arctic. Global warming is approaching the tipping point of 1.5°C when permafrost will melt all across the Arctic.
"Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we've measured have been large, and we're seeing very different patterns from what models suggest," Miller said. "We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That's similar to what you might find in a large city."
Ultimately, the scientists hope their observations will indicate whether an irreversible permafrost tipping point may be near at hand. While scientists don't yet believe the Arctic has reached that tipping point, no one knows for sure. "We hope CARVE may be able to find that 'smoking gun,' if one exists," Miller said.
The press release does a great job of explaining why permafrost melting is such a big problem. Because I can't improve it, I will quote the block in the middle of the release that explains how permafrost melting threatens climate stability and Arctic ecosystems.
"The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate," he said. "Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system."
Aboard the NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., Miller, CARVE Project Manager Steve Dinardo of JPL and the CARVE science team are probing deep into the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle. The team is measuring emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost -- signals that may hold a key to Earth's climate future.
What Lies Beneath
Permafrost (perennially frozen) soils underlie much of the Arctic. Each summer, the top layers of these soils thaw. The thawed layer varies in depth from about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the coldest tundra regions to several yards, or meters, in the southern boreal forests. This active soil layer at the surface provides the precarious foothold on which Arctic vegetation survives. The Arctic's extremely cold, wet conditions prevent dead plants and animals from decomposing, so each year another layer gets added to the reservoirs of organic carbon sequestered just beneath the topsoil.
Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon - an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That's about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth's soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.
But, as scientists are learning, permafrost - and its stored carbon - may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned.
"Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures - as much as 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius) in just the past 30 years," Miller said. "As heat from Earth's surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic's carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming."
Current climate models do not adequately account for the impact of climate change on permafrost and how its degradation may affect regional and global climate. Scientists want to know how much permafrost carbon may be vulnerable to release as Earth's climate warms, and how fast it may be released.
CARVing Out a Better Understanding of Arctic Carbon
Enter CARVE. Now in its third year, this NASA Earth Ventures program investigation is expanding our understanding of how the Arctic's water and carbon cycles are linked to climate, as well as what effects fires and thawing permafrost are having on Arctic carbon emissions. CARVE is testing hypotheses that Arctic carbon reservoirs are vulnerable to climate warming, while delivering the first direct measurements and detailed regional maps of Arctic carbon dioxide and methane sources and demonstrating new remote sensing and modeling capabilities. About two dozen scientists from 12 institutions are participating.
"The Arctic is warming dramatically - two to three times faster than mid-latitude regions - yet we lack sustained observations and accurate climate models to know with confidence how the balance of carbon among living things will respond to climate change and related phenomena in the 21st century," said Miller. "Changes in climate may trigger transformations that are simply not reversible within our lifetimes, potentially causing rapid changes in the Earth system that will require adaptations by people and ecosystems."