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Arctic ‘Carbon Bomb’ Theory Falls Flat

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor
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A new study debunks the theory that melting permafrost in the Arctic region will release a “carbon bomb” that will cause catastrophic global warming.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” A. David McGuire, a climate scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, said in a statement.

News reports have hyped up the study saying melting Arctic permafrost could release lots of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere — only adding to worries that global warming will get out of control. Washington Post writer Chris Mooney remarked the study “basically confirm that we have a serious problem — if not necessarily a catastrophe — on our hands.”

But do we? The study actually suggests a “gradual, prolonged” release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost — meaning society has much more time to adapt to rising emissions from permafrost melt than scientists previously thought.

For years, scientists have been debating over how much warming would occur — and how fast — as greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost in the world’s polar regions are released into the atmosphere. Scientists have argue that permafrost melting was a “carbon bomb” that would be catastrophic for the climate.

But this latest study, which is a synthesis of past research, finds there is no “carbon bomb” coming from the Arctic. Instead, it argues the “evidence suggests a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate.” Though the study does acknowledge there are still lots of uncertainties with the research on permafrost melt.

“What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle,” McGuire added.

Research shows polar permafrost has warmed 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the last three decades, which has accelerated the microbial breakdown of organic carbon that has been frozen. This releases carbon dioxide and methane, which scientists say will accelerate global warming.

Scientists worry about permafrost because it contains twice as much carbon dioxide as there is currently in the atmosphere — of which there is about 400 parts per million. Once models start adding in carbon dioxide from permafrost melt into calculations, it may increase predictions of future warming.

“If society’s goal is to try to keep the rise in global temperatures under two degrees Celsius and we haven’t taken permafrost carbon release into account in terms of mitigation efforts, then we might underestimate that amount of mitigation effort required to reach that goal,” McGuire said.

WaPo’s Mooney notes that if “you assume 15 percent of the carbon will be emitted in this century, for instance, then the range becomes about 200 to 237 gigatons” adding that “the emissions don’t end at 2100 — they continue well into the next century.”

But it remains an open question to how much warming will actually occur because of permafrost melt. Global temperatures have warmed much less than most climate models initially predicted — indeed, satellite records show temperatures have not risen in more than 18 years.

A study from last year found the climate was much less sensitive to carbon dioxide emissions than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents it to be.

“Our results, which use data from this year’s IPCC fifth assessment report, are in line with those of several recent studies based on observed centennial warming and strongly suggest complex global climate models used for warming projections are oversensitive to carbon dioxide concentrations,” said Nic Lewis, the report’s co-author and an independent climate scientist.

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