Permafrost thawing rate accelerates, scientist finds

METHANE: Earth belches gas frozen for eons into ice under Arctic lakes.

November 21, 2010 

Methane gas fumes through a spot scraped by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov through ice covering a Siberian lake in October.

ARTHUR MAX / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHERSKY, Russia -- The Russian scientist shuffles across the frozen lake, scuffing aside ankle-deep snow until he finds a cluster of bubbles trapped under the ice. With a cigarette lighter in one hand and a knife in the other, he lances the ice like a blister. Methane whooshes out and bursts into a thin blue flame.

Gas locked inside Siberia's frozen soil and under its lakes has been seeping out since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. But in the past few decades, as the Earth has warmed, the icy ground has begun thawing more rapidly, accelerating the release of methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide -- at a perilous rate.

Some scientists believe the thawing of permafrost could become the epicenter of climate change. They say 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, locked inside icebound earth since the age of mammoths, is a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.

"Here, total carbon storage is like all the rain forests of our planet put together," says the scientist, Sergey Zimov -- "here" being the endless sweep of snow and ice stretching toward Siberia's gray horizon, as seen from Zimov's research facility nearly 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Climate change moves back to center-stage on Nov. 29 when governments meet in Cancun, Mexico, to try again to thrash out a course of counteractions. But U.N. officials hold out no hope the two weeks of talks will lead to a legally binding accord governing carbon emissions, seen is the key to averting what is feared might be a dramatic change in climate this century.

Most climate scientists, with a few dissenters, say human activities -- the stuff of daily life like driving cars, producing electricity or raising cattle -- is overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap heat.

Global warming is amplified in the polar regions, yet awareness of methane leaks from permafrost is so new that it was not even mentioned in the seminal 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of rising sea levels inundating coastal cities, dramatic shifts in rainfall disrupting agriculture and drinking water, the spread of diseases and the extinction of species.

Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been measuring methane seeps in Arctic lakes in Alaska, Canada and Russia, starting here around Chersky 10 years ago.

She was stunned to see how much methane was leaking from holes in the sediment at the bottom of one of the first lakes she visited. "On some days it looked like the lake was boiling," she said. Each year, she noticed this and other lakes doubling in size as warm water ate into the frozen banks.

"The edges of the lake look like someone eating a cookie. The permafrost gets digested in the guts of the lake and burps out as methane," she said in an interview in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, en route to a field trip in Greenland and Scandinavia.

More than 50 billion tons could be unleashed from Siberian lakes alone, more than 10 times the amount now in the atmosphere, she said. But the rate of defrosting is hard to assess with the data at hand.

"If permafrost were to thaw suddenly, in a flash, it would put a tremendous amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We would feel temperatures warming across the globe. And that would be a big deal," she said. But it may not happen so quickly. "Depending on how slow permafrost thaws, its effect on temperature across the globe will be different," she said.

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