Runaway melt: Alaska permafrost is thawing even in winter

Much of the North Slope of Alaska is characterized by low, sweeping tundra hills, and a complete absence of trees. (Creative Commons photo by Paxson Woelber)

When you think of carbon emissions, you probably think of the exhaust that comes from your car. But it comes from the ground, too. As the temperature continues to rise in the Arctic, Alaska’s melting permafrost is releasing carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. A new report published Monday said CO2 is escaping in the wintertime at increasing rates.

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Róisín Commane is an atmospheric researcher at Harvard, and she’s flown a number of times over places like Bethel, Nome and Barrow in a plane that looks — as she describes it — like a FedEx truck with wings. The aircraft is small and boxy and outfitted with instruments that measure carbon dioxide.

Commane said you can’t really see the CO2 hovering in the air. But you can feel it.

“The plane will be bouncy. You make sure you have your coffee cup in your hand not left on top of anything because you never know when you could hit an air pocket,” Commane said.

Most of Commane’s time in the state has been spent flying over it. Still, it’s the tundra that she’s really interested in. The soils in the northern parts of Alaska and Canada are extremely rich in carbon.

“So this is ancient carbon,” Commane said. “The carbon that’s locked in the permafrost in the Arctic is thousands and millions of years old.”

Commane said it’s estimated that the frozen lands of the Arctic contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the summer, some carbon dioxide escapes as the permafrost melts. But scientists have discovered it’s now happening in the winter, too.

“I think the main reason we’re worried about this is because as the temperatures are increasing and we’ve been seeing that happening for the last few years, the amount of CO2 that’s going to come out will go with that temperature,” Commane said.

Commane said it can be described as the climate equivalent to a dog chasing it’s own tail.

“Because it’s getting warmer, there’s more CO2 coming out which means it’s going to get warmer which means there’s more CO2 coming out,” Commane said. “And it will just run away with itself.”

As far back as the 1960s scientists thought this could someday be a problem in the Arctic. Eventually, they came up with climate models to help forecast the change.

“The problem is that most of the those models predicted that for 100 years into the future,” Commane said. “We’re now having to reassess, OK, this needs to be added to those models now. Because we’re seeing this much earlier than we thought we would see it.”

Some scientists think they can help fix the problem. Commane has heard of a Russian lab that wants to bring woolly mammoths back from extinction to stomp down the tundra, so it refreezes over. But she thinks that idea is far fetched. She said for the Arctic, there appears to be no turning back.

“Yeah, I feel like there’s not much I can do which is almost frustrating,” Commane said. “It’s such a complex system, and we’ve pushed it past the point of us being able to do anything about it.”

The one thing Commane can do is collect more data on the Arctic. She saidit’s important for scientists to continue to track the changes to come.