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How Much Worse Will Thawing Arctic Permafrost Make Climate Change?

How Much Worse Will Thawing Arctic Permafrost Make Climate Change?

Global warming is setting free carbon from life buried long ago in the Arctic’s frozen soils, but its impact on the climate crisis is unclear

The permanence of frozen ground in the Arctic is no longer guaranteed as Earth’s temperatures continue to climb. But how much the degradation of so-called permafrost will worsen climate change is still unclear, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Sixth Assessment Report, released this week. The uncertainty leaves researchers with a frustrating hole in their climate projections.

Permafrost covers a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land and stores around 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon, twice as much as Earth’s atmosphere currently holds. Most of this carbon is the remains of ancient life encased in the frozen soil for up to hundreds of thousands of years.

In recent decades, permafrost has thawed because of global warming from heat trapped primarily by carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Arctic warming is rising at twice the global average rate since 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As that increase accelerates the thaw of permafrost, the organic carbon contained within it breaks down and releases carbon dioxide, exacerbating climate change.

But climate scientists are unsure how much carbon will be released from permafrost and when, which is reflected in the wide range of estimates provided by this week’s IPCC report. This uncertainty hampers climate change projections, making it harder to know whether the world’s nations are on track to meet targets designed to limit global warming established in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Creating policies to meet those targets hinges on a precise understanding of how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere each year.

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