First it was beavers. Now climate scientists are criticizing squirrels for their contribution to global warming.
Researchers presented findings to the American Geophysical Union at a fall meeting in San Francisco, Calif., that squirrels are causing vast greenhouse gas reserves in permafrost to be released, which is contributing to global warming.
“We know wildlife impacts vegetation, and we know vegetation impacts thaw and soil carbon,” said Dr. Sue Natali of Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, according to BBC News. “It certainly has a bigger impact than we’ve considered and it’s something we will be considering more and more going into the future.”
Vast amounts of carbon dioxide accumulates in the Arctic permafrost and remains frozen in the soil year-round. That is, until squirrels dig it up and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, driving temperature rises, according to scientists.
Natali and fellow researcher Nigel Golden of the University of Wisconsin found that Arctic squirrels were digging up permafrost to make their homes. But this creates a vicious cycle where greenhouse gases are released from the soil, warm the atmosphere and cause more permafrost to melt which then releases more greenhouse gas.
“They are soil engineers,” Golden said. “They break down the soil when they are digging their burrows, they mix the top layer with the bottom layer, they are bringing oxygen to the soil and they are fertilizing the soil with their urine and their feces.”
“We saw an increase in soil temperature in the soils where the arctic ground squirrels were occupying,” he said.
This is the second rodent in recent months blamed for hastening global warming. A study by Colin Whitfield of the University of Saskatchewan claims that beaver dams are causing greenhouse gases to be released from shallow ponds, which harms the climate.
“Continued range expansion, coupled with changes in population and pond densities, may dramatically increase the amount of water impounded by the beaver,” Whitfield said. “This, in combination with anticipated increases in surface water temperatures, and likely effects on rates of methanogenesis, suggests that the contribution of beaver activity to global methane emissions may continue to grow.”
Basically Whitfield is arguing beaver conservation has been so successful it’s now harming the Earth’s climate through increased greenhouse gas emissions. Who would have thought?
But now squirrels are being targeted as well. Scientists are now trying to figure out just how much Arctic squirrels are contributing to global warming.
“Carbon has been accumulating in permafrost for tens of thousands of years,” Natali said. “The temperature is very cold, the soils are saturated, so that when plants and animals die, rather than decompose, the carbon has been slowly, slowly building up.”
“Right now the carbon storage is about 1,500 petagrams (1,500 billion tonnes). To put that in perspective, that’s about twice as much as is contained in the atmosphere,” she added.
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