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Risk of Warming via Methane Release by Permafrost Degradation

Gao, X., Schlosser, C.A., Sokolov, A., Anthony, K.W., Zhuang, Q. and Kicklighter, D. 2013. Permafrost degradation and methane: low risk of biogeochemical climate-warming feedback. Environmental Research Letters 8: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/035014.
Introducing their work, Gao et al. (2013) write that "climate change and permafrost thaw have been suggested to increase high-latitude methane emissions that could potentially represent a strong feedback to the climate system," noting that "of particular concern is the permafrost in near-surface, carbon-rich, ice-rich soils," where "increased thawing of these soils can transform the hydrologic landscape to aid in the formation/expansion of saturated areas such as lakes and wetlands (Zimov et al., 1997; Shindell et al., 2004)," and where "anaerobic decomposition of thawed organic carbon results in emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which could constitute a positive feedback to the climate system (Walter et al., 2006; Anisimov, 2007)" with extremely undesirable consequences.

To better evaluate this line of reasoning, Gao et al. set out to employ an integrated earth-system model framework to "examine the degradation of near-surface permafrost, temporal dynamics of inundation (lakes and wetlands) induced by hydro-climatic change, subsequent methane emission, and potential climate feedback." In doing so, the six scientists found that "increases in atmospheric CH4 and its radiative forcing, which result from the thawed, inundated emission sources, are small, particularly when weighed against human emissions," while adding "the additional warming, across the range of climate policy and uncertainties in the climate-system response, would be no greater than 0.1°C by 2100." What is more, they calculate that "for this temperature feedback to be doubled (to approximately 0.2°C) by 2100, at least a 25-fold increase in the methane emission that results from the estimated permafrost degradation would be required." In light of such findings, it appears the so-called methane problem is actually no problem at all.

Additional References
Anisimov, O.A. 2007. Potential feedback of thawing permafrost to the global climate system through methane emission. Environmental Research Letters 2: 10.1088/1748-9326/2/4/045016.

Shindell, D., Walter, B.P. and Faluvegi, G. 2004. Impacts of climate change on methane emissions from wetlands. Geophysical Research Letters 31: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/035014.

Walter, K.M., Zimov, S.A., Chanton, J.P., Verbyla, D. and Chapin III, F.S. 2006. Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as positive feedback to climate warming. Nature 443: 71-75.

Zimov, S.A., Voropaev, Y.V., Semiletov, I.P., Davidov, S.P., Prosiannikov, S.F., Chapin, F.S., Chapin, M.C., Trumbore, S. and Tyler, S. 1997. North Siberian lakes: a methane source fuelled by Pleistocene carbon. Science 277: 800-802.

Archived 25 February 2014