Waking a "sleeping giant": Release of carbon from permafrost collapse in the North

May 10, 2019



As temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost rises above freezing. With this warming, microorganisms in the soil break down organic matter leading to release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases including CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide. 


Current greenhouse gas models account for relatively slow melting of permafrost over decades or even centuries however, Turetsky et al. (2019) warn of the dangers associated with abrupt permafrost thaw which is occurring over a much shorter time scale of days or weeks. The collapse of thawing permafrost could double the warming from greenhouse gases released in this region. The landscape itself can also be drastically affected by permafrost collapse as the above photo illustrates. When pockets of ice in permafrost thaws, the land can destabilize and sink, causing landslides, accelerated erosion, and floods. Lakes can also be drained or their waters diverted.


Turetsky et al. (2019) urge that research on abrupt permafrost thaw be a priority in order to fill a number of gaps in our current understanding, such as:

  • Predicting where the greatest releases of methane and CO2 will come from and tracking changes over time.
  • Determining the amount and fate of thawed carbon displaced by landslides and erosion - does it stay in the ground, get released into the atmosphere, or flow into surface water?
  • Establishing the extent to which plant regeneration on areas affected by permafrost thaw will offset the carbon being released into the atmosphere and how thawed ecosystems will evolve and possibly recover.
  • Determining the distribution, concentration, and melting speed of permafrost ice.


Turetsky et al. (2019) suggest a number of approaches to address these knowledge gaps, such as improved tracking of permafrost and carbon using advanced technologies, increased monitoring of river chemistry for indicators of abrupt thawing and to investigate plant and microbial responses to thawing, increased monitoring of CO2 and methane release from areas vulnerable to abrupt thawing and making this data publicly available, creating more holistic earth-system models that incorporate key processes affecting carbon release, and improved reporting of best estimates of the effects of abrupt thawing on climate change.


Read the full article (open source):




Turetsky MR, Abbott BW, Jones MC, Anthony KW, Olefeldt D, Schuur EAG, Koven C, McGuire AD, Grosse G, Kuhry P, Hugelius G, Lawrence DM, Gibson C, and Sannel ABK. (2019) Permafrost collapse is accelerating carbon release. Nature. 569:32-34. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01313-4


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