Image from jurvetson
Following on the heels of a recently published study in the journal Nature Geoscience, which estimated that Arctic permafrost could hold 60% more organic carbon than previously thought, a team of scientists from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has found that the planet's permafrost layers -- comprising an area that covers a fifth of Earth's land mass -- store twice as much methane and carbon dioxide as previously believed.
The results of their study, published in the journal Bioscience, state that permafrost layers located at high altitudes contain over 1500 billion tons of CO2 and methane, or twice the amount of GHG currently present in the atmosphere.
Image from Sergei Zimov/CSIRO
Release of even a fraction could greatly increase future temperature rise
While he said it was too early to start making dire predictions about future melting rates, Pep Canadell, a CSIRO atmospheric scientist who co-authored the paper, warned that: "With temperatures in the higher latitudes estimated to rise by as much as eight degrees by the end of this century, the world could experience a major melt of large tracts of permafrost in Canada, Russia, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland".
Consequences could be worsened by positive feedback loop
The great fear among scientists, of course, is that a sudden release of methane and CO2 from the thawing permafrost could perpetuate a dangerous positive feedback cycle in which rising atmospheric GHG levels could accelerate climate change, resulting in more melting and, thus, more emissions. What is clear, in the wake of this and the Nature study, is that climate researchers will have to rejigger their models -- which could lead to some sobering revisions in emission targets.
Methane: a potential energy source?
Aside from simply slowing the release of GHG emissions (easier said than done), there is the possibility that some of that trapped methane could be harnessed as an alternative source of energy. Though risky (methane is roughly 21-23 times more potent a GHG than CO2), Japan, Canada and a few other countries have been working on finding economical ways to safely extract the methane hydrates from wells in the permafrost. For now, however, it's probably best to focus on the main issue at hand: drastically reducing our current emission production.
More about permafrost
::60% More Greenhouse Gases Trapped in Permafrost Than Previously Thought
::Melting Arctic Ice Increases Permafrost Thaw Farther Inland Than Previously Thought
::Researchers Extract Permafrost-Locked Methane from Gas Hydrates, Potentially Paving Way for Large New Energy Source