New Arctic Lakes Could Soon Be a Major Source of Atmospheric Methane

Christopher Davidson
August 19, 2018

The team behind the new research measured carbon release at 72 different locations on 11 thermokarst lakes across Siberia and Alaska, plus five locations without lakes, to calculate how much greenhouse gas was being produced and how old the carbon it contained was.

The current climate change models do not factor the greenhouse gases emissions generated by the thermokarst lakes, especially when it comes to methane emissions.

Scientists have anxious for years that rising temperatures will free carbon trapped in frozen soil in the Arctic, accelerating the pace of climate change - but now they believe abrupt thawing below lakes is even more risky.

These lakes are formed when the warm soils melt the ground ice, which leads to the permafrost's collapsing and forming pools of water.

"The mechanism of abrupt thaw and thermokarst lake formation matters a lot for the permafrost-carbon feedback this century", said first author Katey Walter Anthony at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who led the project that was part of NASA's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a ten-year program to understand climate change effects on the Arctic. The lake activity could potentially double the release from terrestrial landscapes by the 2050s.

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The effort, conducted by a team of USA and German researchers, is part of a 10-year NASA-funded project to better understand climate change effects on the Arctic. However, a process begins in the event that the permafrost thaws out - soil microbes located in the permafrost convert the carbon into carbon dioxide and methane. The planet's warming climate is also thawing the Arctic's permafrost, a soil that is typically frozen year-round. "Instead of centimeters of thaw, which is common for terrestrial environments, we've seen 15 meters of thaw beneath newly formed lakes in Goldstream Valley within the past 60 years".

Because the thermokarst lakes are relatively small and scattered throughout the Arctic landscapes, computer models of their behavior are not now incorporated into global climate models. "So you're flash thawing the permafrost under these lakes". That feedback is significant because methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. By including thermokarst lakes, methane becomes the dominant driver, responsible for 70 to 80 percent of permafrost carbon-caused warming this century.

The abrupt thawing takes place under a certain type of Arctic lake, known as a thermokarst lake that forms as permafrost thaws, according to the study published on Friday in the journal Nature Communications.

The impact on the climate may mean an influx of permafrost-derived methane into the atmosphere in the mid-21st century, which is not now accounted for in climate projections. Then, they used this data to make sure the models they were building were on the right track. The research team suggests that even the climate models which estimate only moderate warming for this century should take these emissions into account.

"You can't stop the release of carbon from these lakes once they form", Walter Anthony said. "We can not get around this source of warming".

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