An earth-systems scientist at The University of Alabama assisted a large research project in the Arctic that shows the region could increase carbon dioxide emissions after millenniums of holding it beneath the frozen surface.
“Global systems interact, so carbon dioxide released from the Arctic will not stay there, but diffuse all over the globe,” said Dr. Gregory Starr, UA professor of biological sciences. “If the ecosystem increases carbon emissions in the atmosphere, it will enhance climate change and increase the speed at which it is occurring.”
Arctic regions have captured and stored carbon for tens of thousands of years, but a new study shows winter carbon emissions from the Arctic may now be putting more carbon into the atmosphere than is taken up by plants each year. The study, published in Nature Climate Change, warns that winter carbon dioxide, or CO₂ loss from the world’s permafrost regions, could increase by 41% if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current pace.
The project was led by Dr. Sue Natali with Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, and Starr was one of several dozen co-authors of the paper.
“We’ve known that warmer temperatures and thawing permafrost have been accelerating winter CO₂ emissions, but we haven’t had a clear accounting of the winter carbon balance,” said Natali, director of arctic program for Woods Hole.
“These results, which provide a new baseline for winter CO₂ emissions from the Arctic, indicate that winter CO₂ loss may already be offsetting growing season carbon uptake, and these losses will increase as the climate continues to warm.”
Starr provided data he and post-doctoral researchers from UA collected from Alaska as part of another, earlier project funded by the National Science Foundation. As part of that work, Starr gathered the winter respiration data of plants beneath the snow in the winter.
This study was supported by NASA ABoVE and conducted in coordination with the Permafrost Carbon Network and more than 50 collaborating institutions.