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Does Thawing of Permafrost Lead to Further Global Warming?

Zollinger, B., Alewell, C., Kneisel, C., Meusburger, K., Gartner, H., Brandova, D., Ivy-Ochs, S., Schmidt, M.W.I. and Egli, M. 2013. Effect of permafrost on the formation of soil organic carbon pools and their physical-chemical properties in the Eastern Swiss Alps. Catena 110: 70-85.
According to Zollinger et al. (2013), a thawing of permafrost in sensitive ecosystems will "increase the vulnerability of soil organic matter (SOM) to rapid microbial decomposition that was previously stabilized by freezing temperatures." And they say that "this process might increase the release of CO2 to the atmosphere," which would enhance the warming that was responsible for its release, thereby repeating the cycle and leading to still more warming.

In exploring how this simplistic concept may - or may not - work in the real world, Zollinger et al. studied soils (both with and without permafrost) of two areas above the timberline and one below the timberline in south-eastern Switzerland. In doing so the nine researchers report that carbon stocks (down to the C horizon or rock surface) "did not show a significant difference between permafrost and non-permafrost soils and were in the same range of 10-15 kg/m2 in alpine (grassland) and subalpine (forest) sites."

In light of this finding, Zollinger et al. remark that it is "questionable whether a thawing of permafrost really would lead to an accelerated and increased carbon loss in these soils." For example, as they continue, "several scenarios of global change are predicting ascending vegetation zones, with the subalpine coniferous forest and Ericaceous shrubs becoming able to colonize meadows at higher altitudes (Ozenda and Borel, 1991)." And they suggest that these "changes in plant species and a potential increase in vegetation growth will enhance the aboveground carbon storage capacity that might offset initial carbon losses."

Additional References
Ozenda, P. and Borel, J.L. 1991. Les consequences ecologiques possibles des changements climatiques dans l'Arc alpin. Rapport Futuralp, Volume 1. ICALPE, Le Bourget-du-Lac, France.

Archived 1 January 2014