Due to human-caused warming of the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, a gradual thawing of the permafrost is now taking place where the upper layer of seasonally thawed soil is gradually getting thicker and reaching deeper into the ground.
According to the lead author of the study, Katey Walter Anthony, we won't have to wait for 200-300 years to get these large releases of permafrost carbon. "Ancient greenhouse gases go out". These lakes form when thawing permafrost causes the ground to slump, creating a depression that collects rain and snowmelt and perpetuates a cycle of further permafrost thaw. With thermokarst lakes, methane becomes the dominant driver responsible for 70 to 80 percent of warming-driven directly by permafrost thawing this century.
The permanently frozen soil in the Arctic, known as permafrost, has stored a massive amount of carbon for the past centuries.
"You can't stop the release of carbon from these lakes once they form", Walter Anthony said. Within my lifetime, my children's lifetime, it should be ramping up ... The problem is that this phenomenon is observed, where permafrost is not exposed to relatively high temperatures for tens of thousands of years.The researchers found that the formation of thermokarst increase the carbon contained in the permafrost at 125-190 per cent compared with the quantities of carbon dioxide that are released during the gradual melting.
The team, part of NASA's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), travelled to Alaska and Siberia, and measured the methane bubbling out of 72 locations in 11 thermokarst lakes.
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This abrupt thawing of the permafrost beneath the lakes is especially unsafe because unlike shallow and gradual thawing of terrestrial permafrost, it is impossible to reverse it this century. "It's already happening but it's not happening at a really fast rate right now, but within a few decades, it should peak." . Emitted gases consisting of carbon atoms the age of from two thousand to 43 thousand years, quickly rise to the surface and reach the atmosphere. Adding thermokarst methane to the models makes the feedback's effect similar to that of land-use change, which is the second-largest source of manmade warming. From this data they were able to estimate the amount of permafrost converted to thawed soil in lake bottoms.
"Thermokarst lakes provide a completely different scenario". She says that the large releases of permafrost carbon will happen in her lifetime and continue throughout the generations to come.
Previously, scientists the free University of Amsterdam reported that the melting of permafrost may lead to increase in emissions of carbon. However, Walter Anthony believes including them in future models is important for understanding the role of permafrost in the global carbon budget.
"This is a situation where we could see significant changes within decades, rather than centuries", Walter Anthony said.