Skip to main content

Alaska methane
NASA CARVE scientists observed episodic, localized bursts of methane being emitted from the tundra as the spring thaw progressed northward over Alaska's North Slope in May and June 2012. Reds and yellows represent the highest concentrations of methane, and blues the lowest. The methane is released from the topsoil as it thaws. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

"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.

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.
Arctic Permafrost
Permafrost zones occupy up to 24 per cent of the exposed land area of the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost is also common within the vast continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean. This subsea permafrost formed during the last glacial period when global sea levels were more than 100 m lower than at present and the shelves were exposed to very harsh climate conditions. Subsea permafrost is slowly thawing at many locations. Permafrost of various temperatures and continuity also exists in mountainous areas, due to the cold climate at high elevations.

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."

Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Fri Jun 14, 2013 at 07:34 AM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, EcoJustice, and Gulf Watchers Group.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Meteor Blades, Thumb, Mimikatz, DeminNewJ, Alma, filkertom, grollen, teacherken, Trendar, importer, Gooserock, Powered Grace, mimi, PeterHug, Shockwave, MsSpentyouth, eeff, willyr, HootieMcBoob, elfling, MarkInSanFran, hubcap, silence, RumsfeldResign, cinnamon68, whenwego, chuckvw, barath, ivote2004, Ignacio Magaloni, evelette, wonmug, high uintas, wader, Eric Blair, Miss Jones, pat bunny, TiaRachel, yet another liberal, defluxion10, Timbuk3, wordwraith, walkshills, zerelda, KayCeSF, Deward Hastings, Mosquito Pilot, Steven D, DarkSyde, xxdr zombiexx, oortdust, BoogieMama, rapala, joanneleon, marina, radarlady, jrooth, subtropolis, ek hornbeck, kamarvt, ChemBob, YucatanMan, Laurence Lewis, Kevskos, FutureNow, Beetwasher, Sun Tzu, nailmaker, where4art, GreyHawk, Burned, lotlizard, Ozymandius, Ginny in CO, mightymouse, harrietshubby, Paul Ferguson, Showman, BachFan, Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse, Milly Watt, HoundDog, Gorette, KenBee, dougymi, The Wizard, blueoasis, DarkestHour, MJ via Chicago, StrayCat, philipmerrill, 4Freedom, Rosaura, gooderservice, PapaChach, el cid, sceptical observer, onionjim, BlueMississippi, profh, doingbusinessas, suspiciousmind, crystal eyes, bstotts, markthshark, Little, ammasdarling, One Pissed Off Liberal, FoundingFatherDAR, North Central, Cronesense, Habitat Vic, Loudoun County Dem, SpecialKinFlag, tgypsy, ninkasi23, bigjacbigjacbigjac, devis1, psychodrew, Mary Mike, some other george, tbirchard, terabytes, mudslide, gchaucer2, rovertheoctopus, carpunder, cececville, Assaf, vet, Mike Williams, revm3up, also mom of 5, zerone, Johnny Nucleo, Involuntary Exile, Buckeye Nut Schell, KJG52, jamess, monkeybrainpolitics, Lujane, TomFromNJ, boatjones, bluesheep, petulans, KrazyKitten, Executive Odor, WearyIdealist, SolarMom, forgore, LaFeminista, maggiejean, soarbird, pvasileff, divineorder, nchristine, clambake, Carol in San Antonio, CanyonWren, Nebraskablue, maryabein, Methinks They Lie, sweeper, TheOpinionGuy, asym, bfitzinAR, sfarkash, jfromga, rebel ga, citisven, Larsstephens, Amber6541, Just Bob, rb137, indie17, LaughingPlanet, politik, 4CasandChlo, Polly Syllabic, Things Come Undone, sunny skies, JoanMar, cordgrass, I Lurked For Years, samanthab, pixxer, Yasuragi, addisnana, Betty Pinson, DrTerwilliker, cocinero, Oh Mary Oh, nosleep4u, wrpereir, slice, Pakalolo, Front Toward Enemy, pb3550, bgblcklab1, slowbutsure, freesia, Teiresias70, Alice Olson, RainDog2, boomerchick, marleycat, Lusty, Icarus Diving, Muskegon Critic, PrescottPatriot, muddy boots, worldlotus, enhydra lutris, antooo, peregrine kate, VTCC73, Marihilda, this is only a test, blue aardvark, too many people, RLMiller, dradams, Mentatmark, Auriandra, No one gets out alive, Mathazar, SuWho, weatherdude, Heart n Mind, greenbastard, Mindful Nature, Siri, IndieGuy, Eric Nelson, 2thanks, Yonkers Boy, congenitalefty, CA ridebalanced, Horace Boothroyd III, Lorinda Pike, Johnny the Conqueroo, BusyinCA, New Minas, wxorknot, Glen The Plumber, Robynhood too, Lily O Lady, Chaddiwicker, helfenburg, John Crapper, Panacea Paola, Grandpa Dave, SanFernandoValleyMom, Dan Schapiro, PHScott, aresea, RichHubie, leeleedee, northerntier, helpImdrowning, solarbay, Mike Kahlow, hatrack, tampaedski, Ishmaelbychoice, LilithGardener, Jim Domenico, Catkin, oslyn7, JRElliott, Kombema, KatrinD, ialonelady, Stentorian Tone, Ozy, eagleray, OldSoldier99, lehman scott

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site