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Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming

Authors

  • KEVIN SCHAEFER,

    Corresponding author
    1. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
      Corresponding author: e-mail: kevin.schaefer@nsidc.org
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  • TINGJUN ZHANG,

    1. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
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  • LORI BRUHWILER,

    1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, CO, USA
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  • ANDREW P. BARRETT

    1. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
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Corresponding author: e-mail: kevin.schaefer@nsidc.org

ABSTRACT

The thaw and release of carbon currently frozen in permafrost will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations and amplify surface warming to initiate a positive permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) on climate. We use surface weather from three global climate models based on the moderate warming, A1B Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emissions scenario and the SiBCASA land surface model to estimate the strength and timing of the PCF and associated uncertainty. By 2200, we predict a 29–59% decrease in permafrost area and a 53–97 cm increase in active layer thickness. By 2200, the PCF strength in terms of cumulative permafrost carbon flux to the atmosphere is 190 ± 64 Gt C. This estimate may be low because it does not account for amplified surface warming due to the PCF itself and excludes some discontinuous permafrost regions where SiBCASA did not simulate permafrost. We predict that the PCF will change the arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42–88% of the total global land sink. The thaw and decay of permafrost carbon is irreversible and accounting for the PCF will require larger reductions in fossil fuel emissions to reach a target atmospheric CO2 concentration.

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