Methane, Permafrost, and CARVE Mission Update

June 11, 2013

Science Daily has posted a piece on NASA’s CARVE mission to measure arctic permafrost melt, and increased methane release.

I had interviewed CARVE mission scientist Dr. Charles Miller at last year’s AGU Fall Meeting. The resulting video is one of my most unsettling, above.

Science Daily:

June 11, 2013 — Flying low and slow above the wild, pristine terrain of Alaska’s North Slope in a specially instrumented NASA plane, research scientist Charles Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., surveys the endless whiteness of tundra and frozen permafrost below. On the horizon, a long, dark line appears. The plane draws nearer, and the mysterious object reveals itself to be a massive herd of migrating caribou, stretching for miles. It’s a sight Miller won’t soon forget.

“Seeing those caribou marching single-file across the tundra puts what we’re doing here in the Arctic into perspective,” said Miller, principal investigator of the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE), a five-year NASA-led field campaign studying how climate change is affecting the Arctic’s carbon cycle.

“The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate,” he said. “Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system.”

Aboard the NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., Miller, CARVE Project Manager Steve Dinardo of JPL and the CARVE science team are probing deep into the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle. The team is measuring emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost — signals that may hold a key to Earth’s climate future.

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon — an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That’s about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth’s soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.

But, as scientists are learning, permafrost — and its stored carbon — may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned.

“Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures — as much as 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius) in just the past 30 years,” Miller said. “As heat from Earth’s surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic’s carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming.”

The CARVE science team is busy analyzing data from its first full year of science flights. What they’re finding, Miller said, is both amazing and potentially troubling.

“Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest,” Miller said. “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That’s similar to what you might find in a large city.”


10 Responses to “Methane, Permafrost, and CARVE Mission Update”

  1. omnologos Says:

    petition for a £1000 penalty on whomever mentions canaries and. coalmines again!! (oops I just did it!)

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      Yeah,just another bunch of ‘know-nothing’ NASA scientists trying to ‘alarm’ the masses to git ’em some of that sweet, sweet grant money…amirite!?

    • junkdrawer88 Says:

      Screw the canaries. The miners are now keeling over and the mine owners are wondering “Hmmm, maybe we should move our offices?”

  2. junkdrawer88 Says:

    See the second presentation here by Margaret Torn: (15:00) mark.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Carbon gas releases due to melting permafrost and warming oceans might be the most underestimated feedbacks of AGW. Keeping in perspective that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and is melting faster than anticipated, no nice outlook.

  4. Worth remembering that:
    We do not know (with reasonable probability) what will happen with permafrost – that will be the source or the sink net (in future).
    “Thawing permafrost increases old soil and autotrophic respiration in tundra: Partitioning ecosystem respiration using δ13C and ∆14C”, Hicks Pries (2013, “Areas with greater thaw also had the greatest primary production. Warming in permafrost ecosystems therefore leads to increased plant and old soil respiration that is initially compensated by increased net primary productivity. However, barring large shifts in plant community composition, future increases in old soil respiration will likely outpace productivity, resulting in a positive feedback to climate change.”

    On a side note:
    We should remember that:
    Zimov (2005 – “The 13C/12C isotope ratio of the permafrost reservoir is similar to that of soil, vegetation, and marine biota. Unlike these reservoirs, however, permafrost carbon is depleted in radiocarbon (14C).”
    Hicks Pries (2013) writes similarly: “Old soil heterotrophic respiration ranged from 6 to 18% of Reco and was greatest where permafrost thaw was deepest. Overall, growing season fluxes of autotrophic and old soil heterotrophic respiration increased as permafrost thaw deepened.”
    Trends of changes in C isotopes (which are added with the source, ie the permafrost to the atmosphere), are no different from those generated by our source [both of source make a decrease of 14 C and 13 C in the atmosphere].

    Is also worth remembering, that the global photosynthesis – to now – increased, whenever appeared increase in CO2 sources (eg, our anthropogenic).

    It is worth – once again – noted that these source (i.e. carbon from permafrost and generally NH) of 195? the increasing together with our CO2 emissions ( – sorry it is present suspended – shows big end rapid, temperature change circa 195? on Siberia) ,, and according to current estimates, this increase (from 195? – today) could be larger than ours (at least a similar, but rather was certainly not less).

    And now … a little of mathematics: if with growth rate (the sum for the 195? – to today) a natural source – a 1000 Pg, global photosynthesis removes 75%, this will be 250 Pg “unbalanced surplus”. If, to this source, we add the 500 Pg (such as: our anthropogenic source) and global photosynthesis increases by slightly more than 8% (only!), how it will change “unbalanced surplus”?
    [correct answer: they just do not change …]

    This implies another question: what would happen, if Keeling began, his precise study of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, eg 10 years earlier …?:

    It is worth (before answering) comparing the figures cited above (temperatures changes: in permafrost and Europe), with well known diagram Keeling’s …,
    … and with:,
    … and – at the end – of these:,×241.jpg; – “anathema” with the “official” science …

    All this figures (cited here) show sharp declines (or increases) the parameters around 193?-4? and about 195? year, and then: slow their increases (or decreases).

  5. prokaryotes Says:

    “If we can limit our emissions, then the permafrost region will release less carbon to the atmosphere, there is a curve – it’s not a all or nothing question.” Ben Abbott

  6. […] 2013/06/11: PSinclair: Methane, Permafrost, and CARVE Mission Update […]

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