USGS project shows low fossil fuel burning can limit permafrost thawing, carbon release

Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. (Photo by Brandt Meixell, USGS)

Reduced fossil fuel burning can limit the thaw of permafrost, and the release of large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s the take away from a modeling project led by U.S. Geological Survey and University of Alaska Fairbanks senior scientist Dave McGuire.

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”There’s a handful of models now that do model the carbon that’s contained in permafrost itself,” McGuire said. “And so they have the capability, when they’re run with future climate scenarios, for coupling the thawing of permafrost to the exposure of this previously frozen soil carbon.”

McGuire says two scenarios were run through the model, one in which humans do not curb carbon emissions

”Basically, a business-as-usual one. Very little control of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere,” McGuire said. “And then another one, with the low emission scenario that we require carbon emissions by human society to be decreased by about 75 percent by the end of this century.”

McGuire says modelling indicates that the 75 percent emissions cut, would greatly reduce permafrost thawing and carbon releases by the year 2300.

”So what this basically indicates is that society can do something about the release of this carbon,” McGuire said.

While noting that frozen soils are slow to thaw, McGuire says once melting begins, the released carbon accelerates warming, additional thaw and releases, in what’s known as a positive feedback loop. McGuire and colleagues research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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