EcoAlert: Is a Sleeping Climate-Change Monster Lurking Beneath the Arctic?
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June 15, 2013

EcoAlert: Is a Sleeping Climate-Change Monster Lurking Beneath the Arctic?

 

 

            Frontpagemuskox

"The Arctic is warming dramatically - two to three times faster than mid-latitude regions - yet we lack sustained observations and accurate climate models to know with confidence how the balance of carbon among living things will respond to climate change and related phenomena in the 21st century," said research scientist Charles Miller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.. "Changes in climate may trigger transformations that are simply not reversible within our lifetimes, potentially causing rapid changes in the Earth system that will require adaptations by people and ecosystems."

Permafrost zones occupy nearly a quarter of the exposed land area of the Northern Hemisphere. NASA's Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment is probing deep into the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle in Alaska to measure emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost - signals that may hold a key to Earth's climate future. 

Flying low and slow above the wild, pristine terrain of Alaska's North Slope in a specially instrumented NASA plane Miller surveys the endless whiteness of tundra and frozen permafrost below. On the horizon, a long, dark line appears. The plane draws nearer, and the mysterious object reveals itself to be a massive herd of migrating caribou, stretching for miles. It's a sight Miller won't soon forget.

"Seeing those caribou marching single-file across the tundra puts what we're doing here in the Arctic into perspective," said Miller, principal investigator of the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE), a five-year NASA-led field campaign studying how climate change is affecting the Arctic's carbon cycle.

"The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate," he said. "Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system."

Aboard the NASA C-23 Sherpa aircraft from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., Miller, CARVE Project Manager Steve Dinardo of JPL and the CARVE science team are probing deep into the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle. The team is measuring emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost -- signals that may hold a key to Earth's climate future.

Permafrost (perennially frozen) soils underlie much of the Arctic. Each summer, the top layers of these soils thaw. The thawed layer varies in depth from about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the coldest tundra regions to several yards, or meters, in the southern boreal forests. This active soil layer at the surface provides the precarious foothold on which Arctic vegetation survives. The Arctic's extremely cold, wet conditions prevent dead plants and animals from decomposing, so each year another layer gets added to the reservoirs of organic carbon sequestered just beneath the topsoil.

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon - an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That's about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth's soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.

But, as scientists are learning, permafrost - and its stored carbon - may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned.

"Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures - as much as 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius) in just the past 30 years," Miller said. "As heat from Earth's surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic's carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming."

Current climate models do not adequately account for the impact of climate change on permafrost and how its degradation may affect regional and global climate. Scientists want to know how much permafrost carbon may be vulnerable to release as Earth's climate warms, and how fast it may be released.

Enter CARVE. Now in its third year, this NASA Earth Ventures program investigation is expanding our understanding of how the Arctic's water and carbon cycles are linked to climate, as well as what effects fires and thawing permafrost are having on Arctic carbon emissions. CARVE is testing hypotheses that Arctic carbon reservoirs are vulnerable to climate warming, while delivering the first direct measurements and detailed regional maps of Arctic carbon dioxide and methane sources and demonstrating new remote sensing and modeling capabilities. About two dozen scientists from 12 institutions are participating.

The CARVE team flew test flights in 2011 and science flights in 2012. This April and May, they completed the first two of seven planned monthly campaigns in 2013, and they are currently flying their June campaign.

Each two-week flight campaign across the Alaskan Arctic is designed to capture seasonal variations in the Arctic carbon cycle: spring thaw in April/May, the peak of the summer growing season in June/July, and the annual fall refreeze and first snow in September/October. From a base in Fairbanks, Alaska, the C-23 flies up to eight hours a day to sites on Alaska's North Slope, interior and Yukon River Valley over tundra, permafrost, boreal forests, peatlands and wetlands.

The C-23 won't win any beauty contests - its pilots refer to it as "a UPS truck with a bad nose job." Inside, it's extremely noisy - the pilots and crew wear noise-cancelling headphones to communicate. "When you take the headphones off, it's like being at a NASCAR race," Miller quipped.

But what the C-23 lacks in beauty and quiet, it makes up for in reliability and its ability to fly "down in the mud," so to speak. Most of the time, it flies about 500 feet (152 meters) above ground level, with periodic ascents to higher altitudes to collect background data. Most airborne missions measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane do not fly as low. "CARVE shows you need to fly very close to the surface in the Arctic to capture the interesting exchanges of carbon taking place between Earth's surface and atmosphere," Miller said.

Onboard the plane, sophisticated instruments "sniff" the atmosphere for greenhouse gases. They include a very sensitive spectrometer that analyzes sunlight reflected from Earth's surface to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. This instrument is an airborne simulator for NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission to be launched in 2014. Other instruments analyze air samples from outside the plane for the same chemicals. Aircraft navigation data and basic weather data are also collected. Initial data are delivered to scientists within 12 hours. Air samples are shipped to the University of Colorado's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research Stable Isotope Laboratory and Radiocarbon Laboratory in Boulder for analyses to determine the carbon's sources and whether it came from thawing permafrost.

Much of CARVE's science will come from flying at least three years, Miller says. "We are showing the power of using dependable, low-cost prop planes to make frequent, repeat measurements over time to look for changes from month to month and year to year."

Ground observations complement the aircraft data and are used to calibrate and validate them. The ground sites serve as anchor points for CARVE's flight tracks. Ground data include air samples from tall towers and measurements of soil moisture and temperature to determine whether soil is frozen, thawed or flooded.

It's important to accurately characterize the soils and state of the land surfaces. There's a strong correlation between soil characteristics and release of carbon dioxide and methane. Historically, the cold, wet soils of Arctic ecosystems have stored more carbon than they have released. If climate change causes the Arctic to get warmer and drier, scientists expect most of the carbon to be released as carbon dioxide. If it gets warmer and wetter, most will be in the form of methane.

The distinction is critical. Molecule per molecule, methane is 22 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale, and 105 times more potent on a 20-year timescale. If just one percent of the permafrost carbon released over a short time period is methane, it will have the same greenhouse impact as the 99 percent that is released as carbon dioxide. Characterizing this methane to carbon dioxide ratio is a major CARVE objective.

There are other correlations between Arctic soil characteristics and the release of carbon dioxide and methane. Variations in the timing of spring thaw and the length of the growing season have a major impact on vegetation productivity and whether high northern latitude regions generate or store carbon.

CARVE is also studying wildfire impacts on the Arctic's carbon cycle. Fires in boreal forests or tundra accelerate the thawing of permafrost and carbon release. Detailed fire observation records since 1942 show the average annual number of Alaska wildfires has increased, and fires with burn areas larger than 100,000 acres are occurring more frequently, trends scientists expect to accelerate in a warming Arctic. CARVE's simultaneous measurements of greenhouse gases will help quantify how much carbon is released to the atmosphere from fires in Alaska - a crucial and uncertain element of its carbon budget.

The CARVE science team is busy analyzing data from its first full year of science flights. What they're finding, Miller said, is both amazing and potentially troubling.

"Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we've measured have been large, and we're seeing very different patterns from what models suggest," Miller said. "We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That's similar to what you might find in a large city."

Ultimately, the scientists hope their observations will indicate whether an irreversible permafrost tipping point may be near at hand. While scientists don't yet believe the Arctic has reached that tipping point, no one knows for sure. "We hope CARVE may be able to find that 'smoking gun,' if one exists," Miller said.

Other institutions participating in CARVE include City College of New York; the joint University of Colorado/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder, Colo.; San Diego State University; University of California, Irvine; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.; University of California, Santa Barbara; NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colo.; and University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

The Daily Galaxy via http://science.nasa.gov/missions/carve/

Comments

Please, don’t continue to blame this on CO2

Deforestation, city’s, roads and other human activities that make the ground darker is the big reason for global warming that no ones talks about. The difference in solar warming on a green surface compared to a brownish / black surface is formidable.
Melting of arctic ice is most due to microscopic dark particles from diesel engines, industry and so on.

Accordingly to NASAs own experts, Russell and Mlynczak “Carbon dioxide and nitric oxide are natural thermostats are the two most efficient coolants in the thermosphere”

Science can end this costly debate. Like what’s worse, a comet hit?
Stop cursing neocons and oil execs because it’s the world of science you remaining believers should be venting frustration at for they refuse to say anything beyond “could be” a crisis and it’s been 28 years! All science has to do to end this costly debate is say their crisis WILL happen and is unavoidable, eventual and or ultimately an actual crisis of climate from Human CO2, otherwise 28 years of “maybe” proves it “won’t be”.
Science needs to step up to the plate and say it WILL happen or admit exaggeration because the ultimate crisis needs the ultimate warning and proof. This isn’t a theory any longer; it’s about the Earth’s survival the scientists are telling us.

can anyone tell me were i can explain my theory of everything or (fact's of everything)from wht is realy happening with the earth and globle warming i have a few new facters not been mentoned yet ,the future of the earth, wht a black hole is how it works and wht is realy happening with the expanding universe without someone steeling the credit for it? i erg to share it but i know i'd regret it more if someone stole my theorys .thanks

Ole,

I'm pretty sure you took that quote out of context. Co2 will warm the planet, that is a fact. If you knew HOW you wouldn't have said what you did.

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/22mar_saber/

One day it will not stop snowing and the ice will begin to flow again. The Vikings were farming on Greenland one thousand years ago. Global warming is your friend; the last 100 thousand years is testament to this.

the earth is reacting to human's abusing it and global warming will happen much faster and destructively this time round for most of us to survive if any of us earth quakes will be alot more extreme, hurricanes, floods and drout this faster it happends the more extreme it will be the earth's only re-acting to are actions

we humans have sped up global warming and most of us don't do anything about it even though we know there are animal species suffering and dying.when it's us who suffers for it we try make a little difference. but i bet when it's to late and we cant ignore it because of all the extreme natural distastes that have been sped up by us i'm sure we would do anything to save ourselves.if only we had as much passion for other species lives because we ignore ti it's to late most life on earth will die. because of our selfishness we deserve to die if we didn't exist there would be allot more species of animal living today and in the not to distant future

" the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system"
How ridiculous is that, "they" (the carbon-warming-alarmists) used to say that Alaska is the "canary in the coal mine" for the world's climate, but everyone knows that Alaska has been cooling steadily during the entire XXI century so far, and the Arctic has had some strong winds that caused very low levels of ice extent in the recent summers.
Therefore, they just changed the name of the "canary"!:-)
They should be ashamed of themselves for continuing this great fraud.
Wanna see the great driver of climate change (which is cooling BTW, since 2005) please look at the Sun and try to really understand the many solar cycles and stop spreading pseudo-scientific bullocks.

Lee, all of Greenland? Even the tippy top north part?

I live in New York City. 14,00 years ago this would put me underneath a glacier. Most of Canada was under ice. Warming was good for us then, and is not likely to hurt us now. The AGW hypothesis is based on the premise that increased CO2 will force an increase in tropospheric water vapor which will add 5°C to "average global temperatures". Firstly, the likelihood of this maximum increase has been continually reduced, to where now it's expected to be 2½°C. Secondly, we have yet to see the projected increase in water vapor. Thirdly, I am still curious how you take an "average" temperature of an entire planet, and just what that really tells you. I would also point out that we have fossil evidence that we had alligators living in the arctic around 30 million years ago. It would appear climate changes, with or without us. I would also point out that the proposed reductions in carbon based energy use would mean rolling blackouts and the continued impoverishment of the 3rd world. Except, of course, for the ruling elite. I would point out to you that ice ages run between 50 and 100 million years in duration, alternating between glacial and interglacial episodes. We are currently in an interglacial period. The last one was about 125 thousand years ago, and is called the Eemian. It is believed that temperatures then were a bit warmer than now. All this can be found on Wikipedia. You need not take my word for it.

That's a lot of speculation there Ed, though you do have some facts. Why don't people just make it simple...Pollution is not a good thing, we should do what we can to reduce it. Why so political? Everyone worried they're not going to have the biggest TV in town or the fastest car?

Botany, there's a lot of speculation in the AGW theory. If you look at geological history, we've had a number of ice ages and warm spells. The Eocene Thermal Maximum is not speculation on my part. The geologic community believes it. You need to discount the Egyptian (or Minoan), Roman, and Medieval Warm Periods, wherein the only controversy is the degree to which it was global. Then you have a glacial period at the end of the Ordovician (IIRC) where a report in Science about 2½ years ago indicated the carbon dioxide levels were 8 times higher than now. You also need to keep in mind that CO2 is required for photosynthesis. If CO2 levels drop below about 220PPM most of the food plants we have stop photosynthesizing. I would point out also that to call a naturally occurring , biologically required chemical a pollutant was a POLITICAL decision. The IPCC is a POLITICAL body. I don't own a TV at all, and I drive a 1997 Chevy, putting about 100 miles every 2 months on the car (if that much). Another interesting tidbit to close with. A recent study conducted by the University of California found that thawing Arctic soils failed to release the expected CO2. Instead increased plant growth absorbed it, actually sequestering it in root growth. This from a recent paper in Nature. I'm curious, what in my previous post do you consider speculation?

A lot of data has been collected in Alaska and Canada, but how about northern Russia and Scandinavia? And how does the Arctic situation compare with the Antarctic?

In his book "Physics for Future Presidents," Dr. Richard A. Muller cites the large number of coal-based generators for the remarkable warming of Alaskan and Canadian permafrost -- not the warming as a whole, but the reason for that area's warming more remarkably than other regions. If the "Western" side of the Arctic is thawing more quickly than the "Eastern," and if the Arctic is thawing more quickly than the Antarctic, then he's right. If not, then we have to look elsewhere.

I believe that the data is there. I just don't know if anyone's compared those three regions.

I also find it remarkable to note that, on a global scale, we're not even the warmest we've been in the past few millennia. The planet was warmer at the height of the Egyptian Empire, and of the Roman Empire, as well as in a few periods of pre-history.

I don't think that the current trend of global warming is nothing to worry about (among other things, I would hate to see polar bear habitat completely lost), but I also don't think it's as dire as many are making it out to be.

Ed,

You dump a lot of data out there, to much for a short blog, frankly I don't have the time. I will say that you are correct, the climate has changed throughout the ages.

Thank you Ed. I can't wait to see the power of human ingenuity green every desert on Earth when the Eco alert alarmists have been exposed for the frauds they are.

Ed, I'm back for a moment. As to your question:

"Firstly, the likelihood of this maximum increase has been continually reduced, to where now it's expected to be 2½°C. Secondly, we have yet to see the projected increase in water vapor. Thirdly, I am still curious how you take an "average" temperature of an entire planet, and just what that really tells you."

These three comments, have nothing to do with whether the earth is actually warming, or will warm.

The stars used to be holes in the sky, then they were balls of gas, then we had a galaxy, then multiple galaxies...and so on. Saying that they have reduced the temperature doesn't prove a thing. Neither does not citing your water vapor comment, or being curious how an average temperature of the planet is taken.

I will leave it at that for now

Also Wikipedia is not a source to be cited for information since....ever. It can be edited by anyone.


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