New study mutes the “carbon bomb” hypothesis

A key to climate stabilization could be buried deep in the mud, FSU researchers suggest

Earth’s peatland soils store a lot of carbon — about as much as currently flows freely through the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. As global temperatures rise, scientists worry that the planet’s grip on these carbon reservoirs could weaken, unleashing a “carbon bomb” that could further destabilize Earth’s climate systems.

But a new study led by Florida State University offers some hope that Earth’s carbon reservoirs might not be quite as vulnerable as experts predict. In a global survey of peatlands — areas defined by soil-like, partially decomposed organic matter — researchers found signs that these carbon-rich environments could show some level of long-term resilience even as temperatures continue to climb.

“There’s a lot of concern about losing these carbon reservoirs, but what this study suggests is that they are more stable than we initially thought,” said Jeff Chanton, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Oceanography. “This mutes the carbon bomb hypothesis. It’s good news.”

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Oceanography Jeff Chanton. Credit: Chanton

Peat forms most frequently in the North, where cooler climes prevent organic matter from fully decomposing. But peatlands can also be found in the tropics, where warm weather facilitates rapid decomposition.

This puzzled a team of researchers from FSU’s Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. If tropical peatlands can successfully withstand equatorial temperatures, they asked, might northern peatlands also have the capacity to stabilize in warmer conditions?

To investigate, the team collected peat samples from a globally representative selection of far-flung sites — subarctic Swedish mires, temperate North Carolina bogs and tropical Bornean peat swamps to name a few. They then used advanced spectroscopy tools to investigate the unique chemical profiles of their samples.

The team quickly identified significant chemical differences between peat sourced from higher and lower latitudes.

Lead author Suzanne Hodgkins on an airboat used to access the northern Everglade study site, one of a number of sites from around the world sampled for the study. Credit: Hodgkins

“Peat from warm climates had lower concentrations of carbohydrates and higher concentrations of aromatics compared to peat from colder climates,” said former FSU postdoctoral researcher Suzanne Hodgkins, who led the study.

Cold-climate peat, with its higher carbohydrate concentration, is considered by scientists to be more labile, or more easily degradable. As temperatures increase, the carbohydrates in the peat decompose and carbon dioxide is emitted.

Warm-climate peat sampled from lower latitudes, on the other hand, was found to be largely depleted of carbohydrates. Instead, these samples contained high levels of aromatics — stable chemical compounds left behind by decomposed plant matter.

As temperatures rise at higher latitudes, northern peatlands will burn off their surface store of carbohydrates, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The key to what happens next lies in the chemistry of the peat buried deep below the Earth, said Hodgkins, now a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University.

“The long-term stability of northern peat in the face of warming depends on whether it can develop a chemistry similar to tropical peats,” she said “Initially, northern peat will likely decompose and release carbon into the atmosphere, but eventually this decomposition will reduce the abundance of carbohydrates relative to aromatics. This change in chemistry could stabilize the remaining peat against further decomposition.”

If, after the initial carbohydrate burn, northern peatlands come to more closely resemble their southern counterparts — which have endured in warm weather for millennia — then their aromatic-dominant chemistry could act as a bulwark against further decomposition and carbon dioxide release.

“Evidence from the study suggests that northern peatlands may develop many of the same compositional features as southern peatlands, mitigating to some extent the potential for substantial carbon losses to the atmosphere,” said retired Professor of Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Bill Cooper, who helped direct the study.

This mitigation is contingent on the rate of carbohydrate decomposition and the ways northern plant ecology adapts to warmer temperatures, but it could play a major role in preventing considerable amounts of carbon dioxide from reaching an already-warming atmosphere.

However, while stable peatlands may help avert worst-case scenarios and temper the dreaded carbon bomb, researchers said these kind of ecological restraints on warming are not enough to reverse global climate trends.

“All of these natural processes pale in comparison to the rate at which human beings are releasing fossil fuel CO2 into the atmosphere,” Chanton said. “We’re releasing CO2 at enormous rates, so this is not going to save us.”

The Duke University Wetland Center played an instrumental role in spearheading this research. The study was funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Research Foundation Singapore, Geo.X (the Research Network for Geosciences in Berlin and Potsdam, Germany), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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52 thoughts on “New study mutes the “carbon bomb” hypothesis

      • Yup. As David observes, even the PETM spike can’t be attributed to a carbon bomb of some kind with any high degree of certainty.

        Not just earlier during the present interglacial, but others even warmer and longer-lasting as well, such as the Eemian.

    • Short answer: No.

      The PETM probably didn’t even qualify as a “carbon bomb.”

      News in Brief: Warming may not release Arctic carbon

      By Erin Wayman

      May 15, 2013

      Sadie Iverson

      The Arctic’s stockpile of carbon may be more secure than scientists thought. In a 20-year experiment that warmed patches of chilly ground, tundra soil kept its stored carbon, researchers report.

      […]

      Science News

      In the Alaska experiment, they warmed the permafrost by 2°C over a 20-yr period (10 times the actual rate of warming since the 1800’s) and there wasn’t the slightest hint of an accelerated methane release.

      There is no evidence of widespread thawing of Arctic permafrost since Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS-11), approximately 450,000 years ago. None of the subsequent interglacial stages indicate widespread permafrost thawing, above 60°N, not even MIS-5 (Eemian/Sangamonian), which was about 2°C warmer than present day, possibly as much as 5°C warmer in the Arctic.

      https://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/12/13/defusing-the-arctic-methane-time-bomb/

      If these significantly warmer interglacial stages didn’t cook-off permafrost CH4 bombs, it’s highly unlikely that they cooked-off peat CO2 bombs.

    • There is a Mini-Carbon Bomb that occurs each year.

      Excerpted from above article:

      As global temperatures rise, scientists worry that the planet’s grip on these carbon reservoirs could weaken, unleashing a “carbon bomb” that could further destabilize Earth’s climate systems.

      Peat forms most frequently in the North, where cooler climes prevent organic matter from fully decomposing.

      But, but, but, ……. the above stated claims are directly contrary to one (1) of the most important AGW claims that the AGW theory is based in/on, …….. which is, …… the bi-yearly (seasonal) Northern Hemisphere’s “mini-carbon bomb” that, per se, “EXPLODES” during the cooler climes of the fall-winter months from October thru mid-May …… as a result of microbial decomposition of dead organic matter resulting from the green growth of spring-summer.

      “YUP”, ….. it requires absolute belief in the aforenoted “mini-carbon bomb” if one believes the AGW explanation for the average 6 ppm increase in “wintertime” CO2 as defined by the Keeling Curve Graph.

      http://i1019.photobucket.com/albums/af315/SamC_40/keelingcurve.gif

  1. Maybe they should have gone a step further and taken samples from tropical peat and introduced that and it’s bacteria to a cold environment to see if they create peat similar to tropical peat…….

  2. I thought they might get blacklisted until the second to the last paragraph. They came back into the fold and stated “We’re releasing CO2 at enormous rates, so this is not going to save us”. Funding will continue.

  3. The previous interglacial period, the Eemian, was warmer than this one with more ice cap melting and higher sea levels yet no tipping point, runaway warming ever occured. The last ice age followed and was not prevented by anything. Despite the hype, there is no real evidence that CO2 has any effect on climate and plenty of scientific rationale to support the idea that the climate sensitivity of CO2 is zero.

  4. Anthony,
    I have a couple of suggestions for your prose:

    “As global temperatures rise, SOME scientists worry that the planet’s grip on these carbon reservoirs could weaken, unleashing a “carbon bomb” that could further destabilize Earth’s climate systems.

    But a new study led by Florida State University offers some hope that Earth’s carbon reservoirs might not be quite as vulnerable as OTHER experts predict.”

  5. The ongoing marvel of the carbon cycle: while you still don’t really know anything due to the extremely large uncertainties, you can speculate wildly, comfortable in the knowledge that nobody can prove you wrong.
    Fun, yes, but should precious resources be wasted this way?

    • What precious resources?
      Do you believe that any of these “climate scientists” would be doing something useful if they weren’t wasting their time on “climate science”?

      • I consider my tax dollars a “precious resource”. I’d much rather these climate clowns weren’t chowing down on them.

  6. “researchers said these kind of ecological restraints on warming are not enough to reverse global climate trends.” As if man has the ability to control the climate and can advance or reverse it. We can scientifically substantiate natural variability. Until Uncle Sugar invents a global thermostat all of this “researchers say” hypotheticals are less valid than old wives tales.

  7. When will the greenies realise that each and every one of them breathes out carbon dioxide? Oh, the shame…

    • The next step if they don’t bog down is to arrange to spend summers in the north and winters in the tropics, for the rest of their lives at the taxpayers’ expense…

  8. We learned in Florida after decades of the muck in the Everglades drainage decomposing that if it is left physically undisturbed and if it is kept, or at least regularly flood the muck stops decomposing. We learned in back in the 1970s it was physically disturbing peat soils that caused them to release anything. Our interest at the time was mercury. Scandinavian scientists demonstrated the problem. Undisturbed peat, little release, especially if the peat is protected from the air by some layer, sod or water. It took our scientists two decades to accept (some never did) that high mercury level in fish in the Everglades canals was not coming from air pollution but degradation of peat soils (muck). I might note at the Everglades Agricultural Research Station in Belle Glade, there is a measuring stick showing how much the muck as degraded since they first began intensive farming. We are talking about a relatively large area of muck decomposing just since WWII. No bomb!

    • Yes because most bacteria require oxygen to decompose organic matter and it is well known that environments such as swamps and deep waters quickly become anoxic as bacteria use up all the oxygen and the vast majority of organic matter goes undecomposed.

      The article didn’t once mention the word oxygen. The state of earth sciences in academia is in the dark ages.

  9. I nearly went to say ‘Make sure your Will is in order and up-to-date’
    But with clowns like these doing soil science, things like Wills, inheritance plans, child provision etc are totally, completely and *entirely* unnecessary.
    Save the time & money, party while you still can

    If there are many more uneducated fools such as these out there, and there are judging by the EU green lighting the burning of Europe’s forests, We Are Totally Extinct.
    When the trees go, we go.

    Look out for it, extinction coming soon at a place near you, unless someone wakes up and realises how dirt works.
    Historical precedent says they wont.

  10. “The long-term stability of northern peat in the face of warming depends on whether it can develop a chemistry similar to tropical peats,”

    As the North warms (I hope it continues to do so) trees multiply like mad, absorbing the CO2 from the air as fast as the sunlight and temperature permits. That is happening already which is why there are lodge pole forests.

    While the study looks at peat composition, it is relevant to point out that the carbon bomb hypothesis had no traction to begin with because it assumes that things will warm but biomass growth will not re-commence.

    The permafrost contains trillions of tons of carbon. How did it get there? It grew there the last time it was warm enough to do so. End of (short, alarming) story.

    • ” the carbon bomb hypothesis had no traction to begin with because it assumes that things will warm but biomass growth will not re-commence.”

      It’s like failing kindergarten logic, yet “qualified” professors promote the “hypothesis”.

      I’d love to go to a conference with one of these papers just once so that I could grill these quacks.

  11. Since Carbon Dioxide feeds life, I’ve altered this line from the article slightly:

    [ scientists worry that the planet’s grip on these carbon reservoirs could weaken, unleashing a “carbon bomb” that could further feed life on Earth ]

    What are scientists worried about again?

  12. ‘As global temperatures rise, scientists worry that the planet’s grip on these carbon reservoirs could weaken, unleashing a “carbon bomb” that could further destabilize Earth’s climate systems …’.
    An increasing global temperature that decreases the equator to polar temperature gradient is likely to further stabilise the climate system.

  13. Sigh. These clowns clearly don’t know anything about peat. The reason peat does not oxidize to CO2 and H2O is not temperature. It is absence of oxygen. As long as the peat is wet and the water is anoxic the peat won’t decompose. Drain a peat swamp and the peat simply disappears, literally into thin air. It goes a bit faster in warm climates of course.

    And as already pointed out, peat swamps have survived previous warmer interglacials. Here is aome information about the Tenaghi Philippon peat swamp in Greece that spans 19 interglacial/glacial cycles and 1,350,000 years:

    https://www.stoelben-gmbh.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Pross_TP_Scientific_Drilling.pdf

    Recently new cores were drilled there. The original core from 2005 had deteriorated badly, so a new one was needed. It had lasted 1,35 million years in the (water-soaked) ground but was destroyed in about 1/100,000th of that time in air. There is a lesson there somewhere….

  14. LOL. In other news, there’s a new study that mutes the Flat Earth Hypothesis, and also one that mutes the Green Martians Hypothesis.

  15. An introduction to Alarmist statistical testing (also called hypothesis testing).

    ==========

    Rule 1. Never specify a null hypothesis.

    If you can’t “prove” that your favoured hypothesis is true, then it is easier to claim that you are still correct, if you don’t have a null hypotheses.

    ==========

    Rule 2. Insist that a slowdown or pause, must be statistically significant, before you will accept that it exists.

    Slowdowns and pauses are both “negative” results. They exist when there is NO statistically significant result.

    By saying that you will not accept that a slowdown or pause exists, unless it is statistically significant, you are effectively saying that you will NEVER accept that a slowdown or pause exists, even if it lasts for 10,000 years.

    Compare the Alarmist belief, with this statement. “I will never accept that the apple barrel is empty, unless there are a statistically significant number of apples in it”.

    Slowdowns and pauses should be specified in the null hypothesis. Remember rule 1, never specify a null hypothesis.

    ==========

    Rule 3. Looking for a slowdown or pause, in “noisy” temperature data, is like looking for a black cow on a moonless night. They are hard to see.

    An Alarmist is like a person who has cow manure on their shoes, who insists that there are no black cows around, on a moonless night.

    ==========

    Sorry, I only had 5 minutes to put this together. I have a hypothesis, that Alarmists make a lot more stupid statistical mistakes, than the ones that I have described here. But I am not going to specify a null hypothesis (because I know that I am right, and I don’t want to allow the possibility that I might be wrong).

    • Rule 4. Insist that any propounded increases are NOT subject to the same rigorous requirements of statistical significance: records of various eras, various instrumentation’s, altitudes, depths, conditions, and seasons may all be adjusted and analysed to declare a result of precise statistical certainty.

  16. “All of these natural processes pale in comparison to the rate at which human beings are releasing fossil fuel CO2 into the atmosphere”

    Humans emissions by burning fossil fuel, land use and raising cows are ~8% of the total greenhouse effect.
    Because mankind has been emitting ~6.67% of CO2 see latest satellite figures of 17% more farmland than we thought and more CO2 emitted from plowed fields than we thought) and add an extra 30 % (6.67 * 0.3 =2.0) for methane and another 10% for N2O (6.67 *.1 = 0.667 which in the overall greenhouse gas emissions would put man ‘s contribution at 6.67 + 2 + 0.667 = 9.333 %

    However when you take into account residence time of less than 5 years for CO2 in the atmosphere then it is little wonder why the net increase of CO2 in atm0sphere is still around 0.5% per year.

    The net emissions from all sources to the atmosphere are still only 4 GT carbon or 14.68 GT CO2 but that figure is showing no increase in % over time. For the last 10 years ; It is now 0.617% higher than a year ago which was 0.484% higher than previous year which was 0.745% higher than previous year which was 0.753% higher than previous year which was 0.549% higher than previous year which was 0.512% higher than previous year which was 0.669% higher than previous year which was 0.494% higher than previous year which was 0.601% higher than previous year which was 0.526% higher than previous year. In other words no trend.
    In contrast natural emissions to atmosphere from oceans, microbial, and plant respiration, are 220 GT carbon per year compared to mankind’s 18GT carbon equivalent of all GHG emissions by man.

    SO THE RESEARCHER IS DEAD WRONG IN HIS ASSERTION.

  17. Peat decomposition is not accomplished by chemistry. It is accomplished by microbial critters whose chemical genius derives not from grey matter, but from the statistical weight of a couple billion years of trial and error unavailable to naked apes.

    Living things prefer lighter isotopes of Carbon, the fundamental element of life on earth. The fossil fuels we burn have a clear signature of microbial processing in that they show an isotopic fractionation in favor of 12C to the tune of about -22 PDB.

    Soils worldwide, which release about 6 times as much Carbon to the atmosphere as humans currently do (including largely anaerobic peat soil metabolism) fractionate at ~-20 PDB.

    Bog methane and coal gas are routinely measured at -100 PDB. The point here is that peat chemistry follows the critters. Anaerobic critters REALLY like lighter isotopes, and they have developed a business model where they can take only the work they want.

  18. Selfies now part of scientific communications? What next?

    (in the reflection in her sunglasses, she is holding a phone in both hands). Nothing against selfies, my daughter takes a couple of dozen every day, but at least try and make it look as if you’re doing something sciency.

  19. We need worry about such things only if CO2 is actually effective as a greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere, which it hasn’t yet been proven to be. Careful examination of it’s line spectrum (from 13 to 17 microns, equivalent to a temperature range from -51 to -103 degrees C, i.e., much colder than the normal range of temperatures of Earth’s surface ) reveals that it simply can’t do that, so worrying about CO2 is rather like tilting at the wrong windmill.

  20. We need worry about such things only if CO2 is actually effective as a greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere, which it hasn’t yet been proven to be. Careful examination of it’s line spectrum (from 13 to 17 microns, equivalent to a temperature range from -51 to -103 degrees C, i.e., much colder than the normal range of temperatures of Earth’s surface ) reveals that it simply can’t do that, so worrying about CO2 is rather like tilting at the wrong windmill.

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