Permafrosts are soils with rocks, sediments and debris frozen for consecutive years. Global warming is causing this type of soil to melt in the Arctic.
Permafrosts cover ¼ of the entire Northern Hemisphere and store about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon. That’s twice as much carbon as the atmosphere currently has!
All this carbon is stored for hundreds of millions of years in frozen soils. If the Earth continues to warm, more and more of the Arctic soil will melt and release the trapped gases and other substances.
How much, when and how will the gases be released in the Arctic soil melt?
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that it is still unclear when and how much of the toxic gases will actually be released into the atmosphere as the permafrosts melt.
This uncertainty hinders the climate projections for the coming years, where the melting of the Arctic soil is not taken into account.
Despite this, scientists are working to better understand the contribution of permafrost to climate change.
Arctic soil melt alters the Earth’s carbon cycle through the appearance of soil-dwelling microorganisms. These microorganisms that were also frozen, become active and consume organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
Thus, the metabolism of microorganisms accelerates with higher temperatures, causing a greater consumption of organic matter.
Thus, global warming starts a cycle: causing more release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further increasing the temperature, which further worsens the release of gases into the atmosphere.
Expanding Permafrost Studies
Studies monitoring Arctic soil melt take place in a few places. Thus, there is little representation of what is happening across the region.
The remote and cold conditions of the Arctic make on-site surveys difficult. An alternative is to monitor permafrost from satellites, as well as the growth of vegetation cover in the region.
Another study alternative is to analyze what happened in the past. Samples of ancient permafrosts and stalagmites show periods when the soil in the Arctic has melted. These records showed air bubbles that did not reach the atmosphere, and thus, did not increase the amount of gases on the planet.
Thus, there are theories as to whether the oceans absorbed the gases or if they became trapped in the soil.
While not reaching an exact conclusion, scientists agree that the need to act on current information is urgent. The climate crisis is at hand and there is no time for perfect solutions.