Major NYT article on Arctic permafrost carbon

December 17, 2011 – 2:43 pm

Don’t miss this article in the New York Times this morning about Arctic permafrost carbon. It’s an excellent summary of a lot of current Arctic carbon research and makes a great case for the relevance of our current Arctic project and the many others like it.

It draws together a lot of the points I’ve made over the last couple months on this blog including our uncertainty of the fate of permafrost C, the potential for a big global warming feedback, and the importance of fires, thermokarst, and good old decomposition. It also does a great job with methane, which I haven’t talked about much. Compared to my blog of course, the article presents the story in a much better package that people will actually read.

I generally agree with the presentation of the facts in the article, but I would make one adjustment to the story. To some extent, the article downplays the importance of the carbon-in, carbon-out equation. It does mention that:

The essential question scientists need to answer is whether the many factors they do not yet understand could speed the release of carbon from permafrost — or, possibly, slow it more than they expect.

For instance, nutrients released from thawing permafrost could spur denser plant growth in the Arctic, and the plants would take up some carbon dioxide.

As a nitrogen nerd, I love the nutrient shoutout, but the broader point is that beyond nutrients, the warming temperatures and increased atmospheric CO2 themselves are likely to make plants photosynthesize more, that is, take in more carbon. The balance of higher photosynthesis vs. increased decomposition is one of the hardest things to figure out. Thus, the “broccoli in the freezer/refrigerator” analogy would be more accurate if freezer/refrigerator also containted a live photosynthesizing Brassica oleracea plant.

Despite the uncertainty about what will in fact happen to Arctic permafrost carbon, I don’t think the article at all overstates the seriousness with which we should take this threat. It might not all go up in smoke and microbial respiration – but it might – and we have to take that seriously. Anyway, kudos to journalist Justin Gillis for bringing this interesting and important story to the masses. Looks like he has some other nice global change articles in the NYT here.

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