A 1.5 C Temperature Rise Could Release Greenhouse Gases in Permafrost

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A global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius could unleash more than 1,000 gigatons of carbon and methane currently trapped beneath Siberian permafrost and accelerate global climate change, a new study says.

In a study conducted in a frozen cave in Siberia, researchers analyzed stalactites and stalagmites which, since they form only when rainwater and snowmelt drip into the caves, provide a glimpse into 500,000 years of changing permafrost conditions.

According to their findings, records of an especially warm period 400,000 years ago suggest that a 1.5-degree increase compared to current temperatures would trigger the thawing of permafrost far north of its existing southern boundary. And since permafrost covers 24 percent of the exposed land surface in the Northern Hemisphere, significant thawing could release huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, said Anton Vaks, a scientist at Oxford University and lead researcher on the study, published in Science Express.

In addition to the effects the loss of permafrost could have on climate, it could also have major regional implications, affecting roadways, railroads, and natural gas facilities built atop the frozen landscape.

Article appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

About Author

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

2 Comments

  1. 1.5°C is considered as the low level of potential climate warming to date. While some people are calling climate change a scam, it is already a reality costing billions.

    It’s more than high time to act massively on climate change. Solutions do exist and even save money. What are we waiting for ?

  2. Daniel Whittingstall on

    Hello . Since this is an issue that will directly effect everyone I figured I might as well put some more detail into my thoughts about the article.

    So, let me get this right…if the temperature rises from the current 0.8C to 1.5C above pre-industrial times the permafrost will hit a tipping point and melt, releasing roughly 1,000 giga-tones of methane (which is 22 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02 over a 100 yr. period, and 150 times more potent over a period of a couple years) into the atmosphere. Since the global temperature is currently being raised due to the increase of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG’s), and there is a time-lag between temperature rise and GHG levels (temperature catching up to where these gases have set the bar, roughly a 20-30 yr. time-lag), then all we need to do to find out how close we are to this tipping point is to look at current and historic levels of GHG’s and the correlating temperatures, right? Come walk with me for a moment.

    Current C02 levels are at 394 ppm (the main factor in the last 180 yrs. of forcing temperature rise, most of which has increased in the last 30 yrs.). The last time C02 levels were this high was roughly 15 million years ago (mya), with temperatures roughly 3-6C above current levels (or 4-7C above pre-industrial times). It would be good to note here that projected emissions and C02 levels by 2030, if “business as usual” continues, will be around 516-774 ppm; levels closer to those of the Eocene 54-50 mya when temperatures were roughly 5-7C higher than today.

    Since there is a time-lag between temperature rise and levels of C02 we can be certain that the temperature will rise 3-6C over the next 20-30 yrs. solely based on current levels of C02 alone. This of course would be the case without adding in any positive feedbacks like the melting of permafrost, arctic sea ice, ice caps, glaciers, ocean die offs due to acidification and rapid forest die offs due to drought/deforestation etc. The thing is, the world has changed quite a bit in the last 15 myr. A lot more carbon, and other substances with the potential to turn into GHG’s, have been stored in the earths surface due to the resumption of glacial cycles (since 13 mya the earth has plummeted into glacial cycles-5 mya and rapid glacial cycles-2.5 mya), increasing the potential/possibility with which to warm the globe if they were ever to be fully released. You see, the other tricky part about this time-lag is that if there was a huge spike in GHG’s over a shorter period of time, lets say 5-10 yrs. (which would definitely be the case if permafrost, ocean and forest die off positive feedbacks were to be pushed over their tipping points, thus releasing massive quantities of methane and C02), the global temperature rise would also increase at an exponential rate. Not to mention the fact that methane has a minute time-lag in comparison to C02.

    So, a more realistic picture would be: current GHG levels will undeniably rise temperatures past the 1.5C mark in the next 10-15 yrs., pushing the permafrost over its tipping point and hurling it into a rapid positive feedback loop, drastically escalating the already exponential rate of global temperature rise. During (or even possibly before) this short process, every other positive feedback will come into play (this because they are all just as sensitive to temperature and/or C02 increases as permafrost is), forcing the global temperature to rise beyond any conservatively or reasonably projected model. What’s really concerning in all this is that the arctic sea ice, permafrost, glaciers and ice caps have already begun their near rapid melt, and we continue to increase our output of fossil fuel GHG emissions and deforest the earth. Does anyone know what more than a 5-7C temperature rise looks like? Near-term extinction for the majority of biological life, including humans. It means that almost all fresh and drinkable water will dry up. It means that the sea levels will rise by roughly 20 meters (120 ft). It means that the current levels of oxygen in the atmosphere right now will become so low that neither I nor you will be able to breath it. This is the part where most people start formulating rebuttals that usually include the word “alarmist!”. Well, if the bare facts of our current situation is not alarming then I would think we have an even bigger problem.

    There are two distinct scenarios here that I feel need to be pointed out (most often they are not). The first one goes like this: if we keep destroying the Earth and continue down this path of “business as usual” then the biosphere will collapse and along with it the global economy and ultimately industrial civilization. The other scenario goes like this: if the destruction perpetuated by industrial civilization is somehow halted, subsequently averting total biosphere collapse, then the global economy and industrial civilization will collapse. Basically, in the next 10-15 yrs., it is unequivocal that either way the global economy and industrial civilization (all that we who are living within this structure know and rely on) will collapse. The question is then: which scenario would you prefer?

    I think the last sentence in the last paragraph of the article posted couldn’t be more to the point. The only chance of survival is to immediately end the consumption of fossil fuels (on all levels and in every way, including well-intentioned “green-energy-solutions” that pump huge amounts of C02 into the atmosphere annually during set-up and production), and to quickly begin sequestering GHG’s from the atmosphere. Best way to end this consumption would be to shut down all fossil fuel extractions, and to lock up all ready-to-be-used fossil fuels: gasoline, coal, stored natural gas, and throw away the key. Best way to sequester the GHG’s (semi-naturally) would be to plant native-to-bioregional plants/trees wherever they had been destroyed, and to grow our own food locally (in the parks, on roadways, on rooftops, and on the front/back lawns of every sub-urban home). These are our only two options, and we need to do both at the same time.

    Yes, things look bad. But it all depends on your perspective. One good thing is that civilization does not represent the whole of humanity, nor does it represent any other species of life on earth. So, on the one hand it doesn’t look too good for civilization if people decide to rise up and end this insanity (which would subsequently be a positive effect on the biosphere and the rest of humanity). But, on the other hand, well…not so good for anyone. Nevertheless be encouraged, we still have a small window of time in which to succeed!

    Cheers

    Daniel Whittingstall

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