Climate change, due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, is warming the arctic. While this is a recognized symptom of global warming, it could also become a major cause of global warming.
The arctic and subarctic have an estimated 1,330 to 1,580 billion tons of organic carbon locked into the frozen soil and there is a possibility that even more is locked deeper in the permafrost. It is the result of thousands of years worth of plant and animal remains stored in the soil by the cold.
It is enough, in other words, to offset even considerable reductions in human greenhouse gas emissions if it were to be released quickly.
As the arctic warms, there is an increased risk that microbes will become more active and cause the release of centuries worth of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
“Our big question is how much, how fast and in what form will this carbon come out,” said Ted Schuur in a statement.
Schuur is a Northern Arizona University biology professor and lead author of a paper published in Nature.
The good news is that, by examining data from recent studies, Schuur and his team determined that permafrost in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions will likely release it’s stored carbons slowly. That means that the greenhouse gasses will escape over a period of several decades rather than all at once, collapsed into a single decade. The latter could be disastrous for any efforts to curb global warming.
The bad news is that this could become a substantial source of greenhouse gasses going forward, regardless of restrictions on human emissions.
The researchers point out that while modern climate change is largely due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, there is a natural carbon cycle at work too that is much more difficult to control or regulate.
“Human activities might start something in motion by releasing carbon gases but natural systems, even in remote places like the Arctic, may add to this problem of climate change,” said Shcuur.
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Global warming is the cause of climate change but they are not the same thing. Climate change involves a change in a number of systems including temperature, weather, ocean currents, rainfall levels and more. Different regions will change at different rates and experience different changes. While the full impact of climate change on the Arctic will not be known for some time, for the last 30 years the arctic has warmed at twice the average rate for the planet.
During the past 30 years, temperatures in the Arctic have increased twice as fast as other parts of the planet.
Schuss and his colleagues hope that their research will improve climate modelling and greenhouse gas emission projections.