A thawing, rotting Arctic?

Permafrost thaw causes the ground to become unstable as the soil collapses. This can damage building and roads built on permafrost. Cracks also expose the carbon stored within to sunlight, which may speed the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Photo credit: Dentren (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Storflaket.JPG)

Permafrost thaw causes the ground to become unstable as the soil collapses. This can damage building and roads built on permafrost. Cracks also expose the carbon stored within to sunlight, which may speed the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
Photo credit: Dentren (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Storflaket.JPG)

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, researchers are looking at a source of even more carbon emissions: thawing permafrost. A warming Arctic may cause significant amounts of dead, organic material currently frozen in permafrost to thaw out and decay, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. How exactly does permafrost store carbon? And what are the consequences if the permafrost thaws?

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What does seeping methane mean for the thawing Arctic?

Photograph of bubbling methane melting a hole through lake ice

Bubbling methane melted a hole in the ice of this otherwise frozen lake in the Brooks Range, Alaska, in April 2011. Credit: Katey Walter Anthony

As people watch the decline of Arctic sea ice, the most obvious sign of climate warming in that region, scientists are noting other signs of change, like methane seeping out of the ground as permafrost thaws and glaciers melt across the Arctic. Scientists suspected these methane seeps existed, but no one had measured how much methane was escaping—until recently. Continue reading