A flip-flop on Arctic permafrost thaws – actually a net cooling rather than a warming

Since we discussed permafrost pingos today, I thought this story from the University of Alaska Fairbanks was a good sidekick story. It seems there’s a silver lining in melting permafrost after all.

Study: Climate-cooling arctic lakes soak up greenhouse gases

New University of Alaska Fairbanks research indicates that arctic thermokarst lakes stabilize climate change by storing more greenhouse gases than they emit into the atmosphere.

Countering a widely-held view that thawing permafrost accelerates atmospheric warming, a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature suggests arctic thermokarst lakes are ‘net climate coolers’ when observed over longer, millennial, time scales.

“Until now, we’ve only thought of thermokarst lakes as positive contributors to climate warming,” says lead researcher Katey Walter Anthony, associate research professor at the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering. “It is true that they do warm climate by strong methane emissions when they first form, but on a longer-term scale, they switch to become climate coolers because they ultimately soak up more carbon from the atmosphere than they ever release.”

Walter-Anthony is traveling, however she and collaborators will be available for an audioconference press briefing Wednesday, July 16 at 1:30, Alaska time (5:30 p.m. Eastern U.S.)

Found in the Arctic and cold mountain regions, thermokarst lakes occur as permafrost thaws and creates surface depressions that fill with melted fresh water, converting what was previously frozen land into lakes. Researchers observed that roughly 5,000 years ago, thermokarst lakes in ice-rich regions of North Siberia and Alaska began cooling, instead of warming the atmosphere.

“While methane and carbon dioxide emissions following thaw lead to immediate radiative warming,” the authors write, “carbon uptake in peat-rich sediments occurs over millennial time scales.”

Found in the Arctic and cold mountain regions, thermokarst lakes occur as permafrost thaws and creates surface depressions that fill with melted freshwater, converting what was previously frozen land into lakes. Pictured: A close-up look at a small arctic thermokarst lake. Credit: UAF photo courtesy of Katey Walter Anthony

Using published data from the circumpolar arctic, their own new field observations of Siberian permafrost and thermokarsts, radiocarbon dating, atmospheric modeling, and spatial analyses, the research team studied how thawing permafrost is affecting climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers found that “thermokarst basins switched from a net radiative warming to a net cooling climate effect about 5000 years ago,” according to their article, published online today. They found that high rates of carbon accumulation in lake sediments were stimulated by several factors, including “thermokarst erosion and deposition of terrestrial organic matter, […] nutrient release from thawing permafrost that stimulated lake productivity, and by slow decomposition in cold, anoxic lake bottoms.”

“These lakes are being fertilized by thawing yedoma permafrost,” explained co-author Miriam Jones, research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Yedoma is a type of permafrost that is rich in organic material. “So mosses and other plants flourish in these lakes, leading to carbon uptake rates that are among the highest in the world, even compared to carbon-rich peatlands.”

Researchers observe that roughly 5,000 years ago, thermokarst lakes in ice-rich regions of North Siberia and Alaska began cooling, instead of warming the atmosphere. Pictured: An overhead view of arctic thermokarst lakes. Credit: UAF photo courtesy of Katey Walter Anthony

The study also revealed another major factor of this process: Researchers found that when the lakes drain, previously thawed organic-rich lake sediments refreeze. The new permafrost formation then stores a large amount of carbon processed in and under thermokarst lakes, as well as the peat that formed after lake drainage. Researchers note that the new carbon storage is not forever, since future warming will likely start rethawing some of the permafrost and release some of the carbon in it via microbial decomposition.

As roughly 30 percent of global permafrost carbon is concentrated within 7 percent of the permafrost region in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, this study’s findings also renew scientific interest in how carbon uptake by thermokarst lakes offsets greenhouse gas emissions. Through its data collection, the study expanded the circumpolar peat carbon pool estimate for permafrost regions by more than 50 percent.

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This international collaboration has received funding or support from: The Alfred Wegener Institute, National Science Foundation, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

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23 thoughts on “A flip-flop on Arctic permafrost thaws – actually a net cooling rather than a warming

  1. Phew, I thought it was worse than we thought.

    We still have to watch out for the deep permafrosty warming also hiding in the deep earth…..

  2. Glad to see quality research in this area of science every once in a while. This is yet a another negative feed back that the warmists never bothered considering and ” the study expanded the circumpolar peat carbon pool estimate for permafrost regions by more than 50 percent” , showing once again that some of these estimates on natures variables are way off.

  3. Actually, no. The warmists now NEED negative feedbacks to explain why their simulations didn’t work. Of course, the negative feedbacks are only temporary (they must be), so once they stop working everything will go back to the way it’s supposed to be…

  4. One thing is certain about climate science; the more the climate scientists claim to know, the more the average guy sees and realise just how little they really do know and how spurious, wrong and fraudulent have been the claims of climate alarmist science.
    In making those quite spurious claims the reality is that the climate alarmist scientists have absolutely no firm proven scientifically based understanding or backing and for some, no idea on which to base those so firmly claimed alarmist climate predictions for the future.

    Claims which elsewhere in this world in other circumstances would have been classed and known as “pure con man carpet bagging ignorance and deliberate fraud ” in the real non “climate science” world.

    And based on what the public are increasingly seeing and coming to believe with this increasing exposure of the extreme ignorance of the climate alarmist scientists of the real world climate systems, those same climate alarmist advocate scientists have demanded that we change the entire world’s economic and energy production systems .
    They have demanded that we change humanity’s entire social, cultural and political systems all to cater for those supposed and predicted climate catastrophes from those same climate alarmist advocate scientists.
    Predictions which are based entirely on their climate models alone allied with their increasingly demonstrated complete and utter ignorance of how the real world’s natural systems and the real global climate reacts to all those still totally unknown and still hidden climate stimuli in the real and natural, non “climate model” world.

  5. Interesting to see an article that doesn’t go out of its way to try and throw a bunch of AGW references in just for the AGW crowd. Maybe there really is something unfreezing out there.

  6. Now I do get the increase in UFO sightings do to AGW. We are making the planet greener which makes it more appealing to the aliens looking for new worlds to conquer. They were right all along we are doomed unless Mother Nature creates enough negative feedback to cool the plant fast enough and de-green the world and plunge us into an ice age, then we will all be saved. I think—-Oh Damn now I am really confused!

  7. Reblogged this on Norah4you's Weblog and commented:
    “Until now, we’ve only thought of thermokarst lakes as positive contributors to climate warming,” says lead researcher Katey Walter Anthony, associate research professor at the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering. “It is true that they do warm climate by strong methane emissions when they first form, but on a longer-term scale, they switch to become climate coolers because they ultimately soak up more carbon from the atmosphere than they ever release.”
    A question: The later was to be read in schoolbooks for 7th grader here in Sweden in 1960’s – is it possible that the rest of our World forgotten to present all basic factors for chemical reaktions due to or as a result of Ice Age glaciars melting? IF so, why?

  8. As all of us regular readers of WUWT know, changes in so.called greenhouse gases have little or no effect on global temperature. Rather the other way around. So who the devil cares whether these ponds emit or absorb greenhouse gases? Any effect is too small to be a feedback of any consequence. The observation ranks as neutral bit of science and does not need to be hyped as pro or con global warming.

    Ancient Mariner

  9. Researchers note that the new carbon storage is not forever, since future warming will likely start rethawing…..

    Last year was the coldest “Daily mean temperatures for the Arctic area north of the 80th northern parallel, plotted with daily climate values calculated from the period 1958-2002″ since 1958 according to DMI. So far this year it look like coming second coldest.

    During the Holocene Hypsithermal the treeline around the Arctic was nearer the north pole than today. All that wood growth helps soak up co2.

  10. Did this paper involve artificial warming, Anthony, or are you thinking of another recent paper?

  11. The obvious question researchers should have asked is if these lakes have so much yerba permafrost what is that about? Obviously if the permafrost is so rich in carbon they must have been great sinks for carbon. This should be a clue. Anyplace you find a huge amount of carbon it probably means that this carbon was there for a reason. In this case the very fertile organic environment meant that probably much sooner than millennial scale carbon uptake occurs. It seems to me that quite quickly after the warming occurs the growth of carbon eating organisms would accelerate to consume all the carbon available making these neutral short term and turn into net sinks long term. It’s common sense that they seem to lack.

  12. norah4you says:
    July 18, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    is it possible that the rest of our World forgotten to present all basic factors for chemical reaktions due to or as a result of Ice Age glaciars melting? IF so, why?
    —————–

    Great question.

    And to mimic another, …… “I should have thought of that.

    If the post-glacial melting that began 22,000 years ago increased sea level by 450+ feet, just how much, if any, did that influx of cold fresh water affect the “CO2 sink” ability of the worlds oceans and lakes?

    And “if any”, is there a “signature” of said in the Ice Core CO2 proxy data?

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