Are we overestimating our global carbon budget?

Research on carbon-cycle feedbacks suggests we have less wiggle room to turn the climate ship around.

(First published at Corporate Knights on July 7, 2015.)


Illustration by Yarek Waszul

The latest research suggests that natural sinks of carbon on land may be slowing or even turning into sources, creating climate consequences potentially worse than first thought.

Nature has provided humans with a buffer against the worst effects of our carbon pollution. Since 1750, we have emitted about 580 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and making cement. If those emissions had simply accumulated in the air, the concentration of carbon dioxide would have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm), as it was before the Industrial Revolution, to about 550 ppm today. Instead, we currently measure around 400 ppm, which is still a whopping 40 per cent above the planet’s pre-industrial atmosphere, but much less than a doubling.

Some 60 per cent of our emissions have been taken up in natural sinks by, in roughly equal parts, dissolving into the ocean and by being taken up by plants growing faster on land. Were it not for these natural carbon sinks, we would by now be much deeper into dangerous climate change.

As we continue to burn fossil fuels, our climate troubles will become worse should those sinks start to falter. And the outlook will be worse still if those sinks turn into sources of carbon.

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Subcap Methane Feedbacks, Part 1: Fossil methane seepage in Alaska

Originally published at Skeptical Science.

As permafrost thaws, methane is released as the vegetable matter in the soils decomposes. This methane bubbles to the surface in lakes and ponds and accumulates under the ice in the wintertime. New research has shown that the most vigorous methane seeps in Alaska are fed also by methane emitted by thermal decomposition of organic matter in deeper and much older sediments. Continuous permafrost acts as a top seal to this fossil methane, preventing it from reaching the surface and, as global warming melts and perforates this cap, we can expect the pent-up gas to be released more quickly. This source of methane, released from traps under the permafrost, is a potential third source of methane feedback in the Arctic, in addition to permafrost soils and methane hydrates. 

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Subcap Methane Feedbacks. Part 2: Quantifying fossil methane seepage in Alaska and the Arctic

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

The previous article in this series looked at the recent discovery of significant releases of fossil methane through the thawing permafrost in Alaska. In this second instalment we will look at the potential of the rest of the Arctic to produce subcap methane, and will compare the size of these seeps to other global methane-producing mechanisms.

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Subcap Methane Feedbacks. Part 4: Speculations

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

Previous articles in this series have reviewed recent research on methane sources from beneath permafrost and ice sheets. Part 1 looked at subcap fossil methane seeps in Alaska;Part 2 provided a perspective for the size of these seeps in relation to other natural and human sources; and Part 3 looked at potential methane sources resulting from the withdrawal of glaciers and ice sheet. In this final section, I will try to make estimates of what subcap methane emissions may mean for future climate change; more as a speculative basis for discussion rather than an authoritative prediction. Firstly, though, I will argue for a role for subcap methane emissions on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). 

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Modelling the permafrost carbon feedback

Originally posted at Skeptical Science and reposted at Climate Progress.

A recent modelling experiment shows that climate change feedbacks from thawing permafrost are likely to increase global temperatures by one-quarter to a full degree Celsius by the end of this century. This extra warming will be in addition to the increase in temperature caused directly by emissions from fossil fuels.  Even in the unlikely event that we were to stop all emissions in the near future, this permafrost climate feedback would likely continue as a self-sustaining process, cancelling out any future natural draw-down in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by the oceans or vegetation. Avoiding dangerous climate change by reducing fossil-fuel emissions becomes more difficult once permafrost emissions are properly considered. 

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DeConto et al: Thawing permafrost drove the PETM extreme heat event

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

Sudden spikes in global temperatures that occurred 50-55 million years ago were caused by thawing of permafrost in Antarctica and northern high latitudes, according to recent research. The trigger for this sudden destabilization was a variation in orbital configurations that resulted in warmer polar summers. This model also provides an analogue for the releases of carbon from modern permafrost caused by current man-made global warming. Modern permafrost volumes are smaller than the estimates for those of 55 million years ago, but will nevertheless amplify the climatic effect of fossil fuel consumption and will provide continuing warming feedbacks for centuries after human emissions cease. Continue reading

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