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Melting Permafrost Could Release Greenhouse Gases: NYT

Melting permafrost threatens to unleash much more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than previously thought, The New York Times reports on December 17, 2011.
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Long trapped inside permafrost, stores of methane and carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gases, have been held in thrall for millennia. As temperatures rise globally, the organic matter that is trapped in the frozen soil is at risk of thawing, decaying and releasing these gases. The New York Times reports today that although the frozen carbon isn't a surprise, the volume of organic debris is.

"A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere," The New York Times says in its December 17 story, part of a series on climate change, global warming and the Arctic.

Even if the permafrost has not thawed, The Times reports, at least some of the still-frozen carbon could be losing its stability. The fear is that accelerating the entry of carbon into the atmosphere could compound the warming process. And, although it would not happen overnight, it could be unstoppable once it began.

In 2009 Canadian scientist Charles Tarnocai and his team estimated that there were about 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in those permafrost regions and that 88 percent of it was frozen, The Times said, quoting his study.

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“If, in a warmer world, bacteria decompose organic soil matter faster, releasing carbon dioxide,” wrote leading French scientist Philippe Ciais at the time, according to The Times, “this will set up a positive feedback loop, speeding up global warming.”

The New York Times story echoes previous fears, such as those outlined in a similar story the Alaska Dispatch ran last March. In a February study published in the journal Tellus, the Dispatch said, researchers at the Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), led by scientist Kevin Schaefer, studied the effect that a thawed-out Arctic would have on overall climate health and found that one- to two-thirds of that permafrost will be gone by 2200, according to a summary of their work by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), in Denver.

Indigenous populations worldwide are of course already seeing the effects of climate change, be it the Inuit trying to live their daily lives, or island nations struggling with rising sea levels.

As the recent COP17 climate change talks in Durban can attest, agreement is hard to come by on the subject of carbon emissions, and Canada's pullout from the Kyoto Protocols on greenhouse gas emissions targets, along with the U.S. Congress's support of the Keystone XL pipeline, do not bode well for a reduction of dependence on fossil fuels.

"If we want to hit a target carbon concentration, then we have to reduce fossil fuel emissions that much lower than previously calculated to account for this additional carbon from the permafrost," Schaefer said in the CIRES writeup. "Otherwise we will end up with a warmer Earth than we want."