Feedbacks from Permafrost Carbon to Climate in a Warmer World

Principal Investigator(s): 

Climate change is altering the world in which we live. The goal of this research is to help understand the changes that humans face as citizens of planet Earth. This research falls under the broad title of global change biology, and is aimed at understanding the interactions between climate change and terrestrial ecosystems; in particular, how changes in the structure and function of ecosystems can either accelerate or mitigate future changes in climate. This Working Group has been to a variety of remote places, as diverse as high rainfall tropical forests and arctic tundra underlain by permafrost -permanently frozen soil. Changes in these ecosystems, far from where people live, have the potential to affect the lives of people around the globe through their influence on the Earth's climate system. Much of the research is focused on ecosystem carbon cycling - the uptake of carbon from the air into ecosystems by plants, and the release of carbon from ecosystems back to the atmosphere via respiration. At present, much of the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributing to climate change is the result of fossil fuel burning and the conversion of forests and other ecosystems to agriculture. However, there is the possibility for climate change to alter the natural cycling of carbon in ecosystems that are far from direct human influence.

A team of international experts quantified the amount of carbon stored in the frozen soils of arctic and boreal ecosystems. They found the amount to be more than twice the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, or more than 150 times larger than the current annual human emissions. Emissions of just a fraction of this permafrost carbon pool could have significant implications for the pace of future climate change.

Working Group Publication: Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle
Edward A.G. Schuur, James Bockheim, Joseph G. Canadell, Eugenie Euskirchen, Christopher B. Field, Sergey V. Goryachkin, Stephen Hagemann, Peter M. Lafleur, Hanna Lee, Galina Mazhitova, Frederick E. Nelson, Annette Rinke, Vladimir E. Romanovsky, Nikolay Shiklomanov, Charles Tarnocai, Sergey Venevsky, Jason G. Vogel, Sergei A. Zimov
BioScience DOI: 10.1641/B580807

Other publications The Effect of Permafrost Thaw on Old Carbon Release and Net Carbon Exchange From Tundra
Edward A.G. Schuur et al. (2009)
Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08031

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