Data show no sign of methane boost from thawing permafrost

Carbon dioxide levels rising, though, in response to warming around Alaska’s North Slope

NOAA Barrow Research Station

THAWING OUT  Emissions of carbon dioxide, but not methane, having risen alongside warming temperatures in a region of northern Alaska, according to an analysis of atmospheric measurements made at this research station in Barrow.


SAN FRANCISCO — One climate doomsday scenario can be downgraded, new research suggests.

Decades of atmospheric measurements from a site in northern Alaska show that rapidly rising temperatures there have not significantly increased methane emissions from the neighboring permafrost-covered landscape, researchers reported December 15 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

Some scientists feared that Arctic warming would unleash large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, worsening global warming. “The ticking time bomb of methane has clearly not manifested itself yet,” said study coauthor Colm Sweeney, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. Emissions of carbon dioxide — a less potent greenhouse gas — did increase over that period, the researchers found.

The CO2 rise “is still bad, it’s just not as bad” as a rise in methane, said Franz Meyer, a remote sensing scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was not involved in the research. The measurements were taken at just one site, though, so Meyer cautions against applying the results to the entire Arctic just yet. “This location might not be representative,” he said.

Across the Arctic, the top three meters of permafrost contain 2.5 times as much carbon as the CO2 released into the atmosphere by human activities since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As the Arctic rapidly warms, these thick layers of frozen soil will thaw and some of the carbon will be converted by hungry microbes into methane and CO2, studies that artificially warmed permafrost have suggested. That carbon will have a bigger impact on Earth’s climate as methane than it will as CO2. Over a 100-year period, a ton of methane will cause about 25 times as much warming as a ton of CO2.

A research station in Alaska’s northernmost city, Barrow, has been monitoring methane concentrations in the Arctic air since 1986 and CO2 since 1973. An air intake on a tower about 16.5 meters off the ground constantly sniffs the air, taking measurements. Barrow has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the Arctic over the last 29 years. This rapid warming “makes this region of the Arctic a great little incubation test to see what happens when we have everything heating up much faster,” Sweeney said.

Over the course of a year, methane concentrations in winds wafting from the nearby tundra rise and fall with temperatures, the Barrow data show. Since 1986, though, seasonal methane emissions have remained largely stable overall. But concentrations of CO2 in air coming from over the tundra, compared with over the nearby Arctic Ocean, have increased by about 0.02 parts per million per year since 1973, the researchers reported.

The lack of an increase in methane concentrations could be caused by the thawing permafrost allowing water to escape and drying the Arctic soil, Sweeney proposed. This drying would limit the productivity of methane-producing microbes, potentially counteracting the effects of warming.

Tracking Arctic wetness will be crucial for predicting future methane emissions in the region, said Susan Natali, an Arctic scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. Studies have shown increased methane emissions from growing Arctic lakes, she points out. “We’re going to get both carbon dioxide and methane,” she said. “It depends on whether areas are getting wetter or drier.”

More Stories from Science News on Earth