Researcher: Future permafrost emissions are alarming but preventable

Posted at 6:05 PM, Dec 12, 2022

In the ongoing discussion about climate change, there's been a lot of talk about the impact of melting glaciers, but not as much about melting permafrost. Northern Arizona University ecosystem researcher Ted Schuur has been studying permafrost for decades.

"It's something that not many people are familiar with because most of permafrost is up in the north," Schuur said. "So Canada, Alaska, Russia, that's where you find permafrost and it's all below the ground. It's ground that remains frozen year round."

Schuur just released research regarding permafrost in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. He says permafrost has implications for everyone because of its impact to climate change. You simply don't hear about it as often.

"You know, glaciers and ice, those are things people see above the ground," Schuur said. "We can actually see them from satellite. So we map glaciers and we map sea ice. We have a good snapshot of what's happening now. Permafrost is the ground. It's frozen ground beneath the feet. You have to dig down into it. You can't see it just from the surface. You can't see it from a satellite. And so it's kind of a big sort of mystery."

It's a mystery that Schuur and his team have been researching for decades by traveling up to Alaska to measure permafrost and forecast how much carbon dioxide and methane it will release into the atmosphere throughout the next century.

"Right now we think there's about three times as much carbon stored in permafrost region as there as there is in the atmosphere," Schuur said.

Schuur explains carbon is a natural part of ecosystems, but the frozen ground stores it. As the permafrost warms, bacteria and fungi that live in the soil eat the carbon and create carbon dioxide and methane. Those greenhouse gases get released into the atmosphere.

"When we try to come up with a number, we think it's going to be in the future the size of a large industrial nation," Schuur said. "So if you take the future emissions of China or the US or Europe, for example, what we think will come out of the Arctic is kind of equivalent to one of those."

Schuur says melting permafrost will speed up climate change even more, but the main point he wants to people to take away from his research is that these projected carbon emissions aren't set yet. If human carbon emissions slow down, the permafrost impact won't be as drastic.

"Ten years ago, if we looked at the world, we were on this path of high carbon emissions," Schuur said. "It was seemingly going up and it seemed like there was little that people could do. But that has changed in the last ten years of the total amount of carbon emissions. Instead of just continuing on that path, it's started to level off. Now, climate scientists we want the leveling off to like go the other way and bend downwards. And so we're still like coming on to that, but we're on the right path."

Schuur says there is reason to have hope if countries continue to pass policy like the Inflation Reduction Act. The Inflation Reduction Act puts hundreds of billions of dollars toward actions that reduce carbon emissions.