Nitrogen in permafrost soils may exert great feedbacks on climate change

Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of SciencesShare Print E-Mail

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IMAGE: Mohe County in northeast China is the study site of the ‘NIFROCLIM’ project. view more  Credit: Chunyan Liu

What nitrogen is getting up to in permafrost soils may be much more interesting than researchers have long believed–with potentially significant consequences for our management of climate change.

Nitrogen is a constituent part of nitrous oxide (N2O)–an often overlooked greenhouse gas, and there is a vast amount of nitrogen stored in permafrost soils.

But little is known about N2O emissions from permafrost soils and until recently, it was assumed that releases had to be fairly minimal because of the cold climate.

Decomposition of organic matter is slow in low temperatures. Exacerbating this, there would have to be high competition amongst organisms for what little nitrogen there was in a form that they can use. So there couldn’t be much nitrogen left over to contribute to N2O releases.

In recent years however, a growing number of papers have started to hint that there might be very high N2O emissions from such soils, perhaps as much as those from tropical forests or croplands, which suggests that there’s a gap in our understanding of what happens to nitrogen in permafrost soils.

To get to the bottom of the issue, Dr. Michael Dannenmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Dr. Chunyan Liu from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences with their colleagues have established the “NIFROCLIM” project in a high-latitude permafrost region in northeast China that is part of the Eurasian permafrost complex–the world’s largest permafrost area.

The profile of “NIFROCLIM” was publsihed on May 23 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

“In contrast to the huge volumes of research into permafrost carbon climate feedbacks, research into permafrost nitrogen climate feedbacks is lagging behind terribly,” said by Elisabeth Ramm, the first author of the News & Views article. “We urgently need to better understand what is happening to nitrogen in these soils, especially as the world warms and permafrost thaws.”

The researchers are taking high-resolution soil and gas samples down to the upper layers of the permafrost across multiple sites with differing landscape characteristics, from upland forests to lowland bogs, as well as engaging in experiments that simulate varying levels of warming.

Building a scientific outpost on the southern edge of this region is ideal for studying impact of climate change on permafrost as the arctic and subarctic in particular is being hit hard already by global warming.

Temperature increases occur here at more than double the pace of the global average, accelerating permafrost degradation and N transformations.

“If anywhere is going to tell us if we’ve been getting the math wrong on nitrogen, it’s here.” said Liu.

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From EurekAlert!

49 thoughts on “Nitrogen in permafrost soils may exert great feedbacks on climate change

      • Yes, I was going to comment on that delusional comment myself.

        ” and there is a vast amount of nitrogen stored in permafrost soils.”
        Just wait until they realise what 80% of the atmosphere is made of !

        • Well the proposition is that its released in oxide form. Of course all nitrous oxides are water soluble and that creates a nice way to get nitrogen back into the soil via slightly acidic rain to promote growth.
          GreenScience™ is confused as to whether is a deadly greenhouse gas that scavenges ozone and dies terrible damage, or if in fact its high solubility makes it a great fertiliser.

          Anyway, skeptics will be laughing their heads off.

        • Another in a long line of articles where you don’t need to go past the headline to know that it will be EurekAlert! nonsense.

  1. “In recent years however, a growing number of papers have started to…” decompose;
    adding so much extra nitrogen and carbon dioxide and hot air to the atmosphere that
    WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE
    (eventually).

    • “But little is known about N2O emissions”….just stop right there

      …everything after that is total BS

      • Like, WTF is Nitrogen feedback? or even carbon feedback for that matter. They push everything as ‘feedback’, because it’s an esoteric enough concept to sound plausible. It’s the same effect that made a high enough sensitivity to justify the formation of the IPCC sound plausible and climate science has been broken ever since.

        Negative feedback makes systems less sensitive to changes in the system while positive feedback makes systems oscillate. The concept of runaway isn’t even relevant when the linear, feedback amplifier analysis misapplied to the climate is applied properly to a linear amplifier or when non linear feedback analysis is applied to an oscillator.

    • Especially after a really good spring/summer thunder storm.

      “Nitrogen in Rainwater.. Several studies in the 1990s showed that locations along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico could expect to get 18 pounds of ammonium and nitrates per acre per year from rainwater. That’s about a tenth of typical nitrogen requirements for growing crops.

      How does nitrogen get into rainwater? (hint…not so much in snow) But ever notice how green the grass or crops look after a really good thunderstorm/rain event?

      “Breaking these bonds requires lots of energy before they can react. Lightning can provide this energy, breaking the bonds and leaving the free nitrogen atoms to combine with oxygen in the atmosphere. The resulting compounds are called nitrates, which dissolve in rainwater more readily than nitrogen gas.”

      • “How does nitrogen get into rainwater? (hint…not so much in snow) But ever notice how green the grass or crops look after a really good thunderstorm/rain event?”

        For years I noticed how plants, right after a rain, seemed energized and looked like they were just jumping out of the ground. But I just attributed that to the extra H2O and didn’t learn until later that when it rains, it rains nitrogen fertilizer, too.

        • The heat from the lightning causes the N2 in the air to oxidize and form various NOx compounds.

      • I used to be neighbors with the head groundskeeper for the Atlanta braves. He told me that after a good thunderstorm they would always cut back on the amount of fertilizer they applied to the field.

  2. >> Temperature increases occur here at more than double the pace of the global average

    Just wanted to point out once more, that any time a warming trend different than the global average is observed some other mechanism beside warming by global CO2 must contribute. “Pure CO2-math” does not allow for local deviation nor changes on the trend over time aka “The Pause”

  3. Again, it should be asked, did this happen during the Holocene Optimum? The Eemian Interglacial? In geological history, these supposedly threatening positive feedbacks are never observed. If anything, warming should increase the mother of all GHGs, water vapor, and even that never caused runaway warming. Ditto CO2, CH4, ozone etc.

    • Yup. This applies to just about every single piece of climate alarmism. Historical extremes have been much greater than anything observed to day but the wheels didn’t come off the climate. But to get more attention and funding the climatists big up their disaster scenarios.

    • “In geological history, these supposedly threatening positive feedbacks are never observed.”

      That is correct. So why should we think they will occur now? Because of a little CO2? We’ve had a lot more CO2 circulating the Earth’s atmosphere in the past, sometimes more than 10 times as much as we have today, yet no runaway warming was observed.

      Claiming CO2 will cause runaway warming is not consistent with the historical record.

  4. Permafrost in NE China? Is this some perched, high elevation, localized “permafrost”? Siberia is north of China and they have permafrost in a large part of the northern half, but China? For sure, it is either there or it isn’t and my logic doesn’t address that issue, but I don’t believe it for a minute. I fought against permafrost in Alaska at a mercury prospect, and it is amazingly resistant stuff (we abandoned the project!). For the record NE China “tops” out at about 52 deg N, and where I was in Alaska is 64 deg N. Color me skeptical.

    • Since Glaciation ended, we have lost a massive amount of frozen ground, which was once as far south as 46N in Europe and similar in America.

      Yet no huge Nitrogen or Methane effect on the environment is visible.

      • New York City, which was under glacial ice, is just slightly north of 40N. That’s about 650km further south than 46N which would be a bit north of Montreal.

    • Mostly under buildings where there is excess warmth, and of course, on black asphalt highways where it clearly shows up in photographs because the additional heat the black highway absorbs in the land of midnight sunlight, and thaws the permafrost below it making for a buckled looking highways and roads, unless properly designed. And the obligatory sea shores that are usually eroding from wave action and show some melting, like they are supposed to and always have during interglacials. But all these examples make for the narrative, and a good photo-op that ‘proves’ the permafrost is melting.

      Most of the northern Shield in northern NA is bedrock or lakes and under a few feet of frozen topsoil if not covered by water. If much of it does melt and releases Methane, that is a one off event, but the resulting CO2 being absorbed in new plant life over time results in locking up more carbon in the newly thawed out soils. Probably a moot point for the most part and manipulation of mostly man made developments that get falsely extrapolated to the entire northern frozen tundra.

  5. As with permafrost methane, the output of N2O when the permafrost top thaws in summer will be regulated by soil microorganisms (mainly Bacteria and Archaea), the prokyrotes.
    One thing we know for sure. Give those critters ‘food’ and they multiply like crazy. Arctic Methanotrophs multiply in summer, previous research has showed, defusing the ‘methane bomb’. Nitrifying bacteria are superabundent in sewage treatment plants because of all the ammonia ‘food’ in urine.
    Mother Nature has got this. BTW, even in Harbin china (the famous winter ice festival) there isn’s any permafrost. So is this research up on some mountain, or what?

  6. The atmosphere runs 0.328ppm N2O! Alarmingly this is an increase from 0.270 since 1800. Sheesh, there ate a lot of ill folk out their losing too much sleep.

    A few years ago there was a study agonizing over parts per trillion antimony (Sb) in bottled water which came from catalysts used in making the plastic. The length of one US dollar is one part per trillion of the distance to the sun from the earth which is 15 trillion centimeters. Moreover, antimony pentoxide is administered as milk of antimony to treat the parasite infestation Lieschmaniasis fot about 100 years, so a few ppt does not even rise up to joke level.

  7. Based on this study, I can say definitively that nitrogen in permafrost soils may exert great feedbacks on climate change, or it may not. Why are so many scientific papers total garbage like this one?

    • Biomass on average is less than 0.5% N though it can vary from 0.1 to 2.5% depending on the part of the tree and how fresh it is.

      Look at the Wikipedia page on biomass composition. Look where the nitrogen is in cellulose and hemi-cellulose. When biomass decomposes the N is already attached to an adjacent O with a double bond on one side only. When it decomposes it therefore emerges as NO, not N2O nor NO2 and certainly not NO3.

      Above it claims they are measuring is N2O. Really? Are they sure about that? Is someone making a fatal typo here?

      NO in sunlight makes NO2, only, and at night it transforms back to NO rather easily. Eventually it reacts with volatile organic carbons and changes to N2 and O2 joining the 78% of the atmosphere that is an inert gas.

      The “threat” of nitrogen emerging from decaying nitrogen offers no risk at all from either a global warming perspective or as an air pollutant. When permafrost melts new biomass grows that takes up more carbon and nitrogen that is lost from the decaying material that was frozen in the ground. The narrative in the article is false.

  8. Their is no such thing in science or physics as a greenhouse gas, that is post modernist speak for either a condensing gas or an optically active gas [radiating gas].
    Have a nice day.

  9. I do believe the *thaw* in permafrost will have far stronger, deeper and longer lasting effects on the environment and atmosphere than any gas captured within it…

    @Gary Ashe

    asynchronous or synchronous re-emissive gasses….

  10. Quote
    “What nitrogen is getting up to in permafrost soils may be much more interesting than researchers have long believed–with potentially significant consequences for our management of climate change”.

    If that isn’t a prompt for new grant support opportunity, I don’t know what is.
    I particularly like the assumed position that “we” manage climate change.

  11. N20 dissolved in water is gobbled up by plants as quickly as they can get their greedy little roots on it. In fact the water down in your well has much less N20 than rain, as roots have sucked out so much N2O as it percolates down through the ground. For this reason you can water the heck out of your plants and they grown like snails in the summer sun, but soon as it rains the plants (and weeds) grow in an explosive manner.

    In like manner plants also play a role in local CO2 levels. All night fungus and other micro-critters raise the down-low level of CO2, sometimes way up to around 1000 parts per million, but soon as the sun comes up photosynthesis begins and plant’s greedy little leaves get to work, and CO2 levels plunge. They get way down to around 180 parts per million, whereupon growth stops for lunch, and often takes the afternoon off.

    So, if you study your own garden (without even a penny of grant money) you swiftly note all your fussing makes some difference, but plants grow most explosively without our help, in the morning after a rain.

    And if you listen very, very carefully, you can hear the whisper of plant’s laughter, when we speak of, “… our management of climate change.”

    It is quite hard enough to manage a small garden. To be honest, sometimes it is the weeds that are managing me. I leave the big stuff to the Creator’s crew of naiads, zephyrs and dryads.

    • Folks in New Orleans have been openly enjoying a good nitrous oxide laugh for years. Maybe when the permafrost melts we’ll all just have a good laugh. You could even get your teeth drilled without anaesthetic. Maybe do it yourself.

  12. “research into permafrost nitrogen climate feedbacks is lagging behind terribly,” said by Elisabeth Ramm, the first author of the News & Views article. “We urgently need to better understand what is happening to nitrogen in these soils, especially as the world warms and permafrost thaws”

    Just send money

  13. “We urgently need to better understand what is happening to nitrogen in these soils, especially as the world warms and permafrost thaws.”

    Not urgent. We already know from the early Holocene and from earlier interglacials that the planet can get substantially warmer without any destabilization occurring. It will be a long time before our crude and 75% wrong models can understand that history.

    It’s good to keep working on it, but it is not urgent any more than uniting quantum mechanics and general relativity is urgent.

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