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Argonne: Pivotal discovery shows more CO2 emissions from permafrost soils than previously thought

A recent study found that carbon dioxide emissions from decomposition in Alaska’s permafrost soil are occurring much more quickly than once thought, with consequences for global warming. (Image by Shutterstock/R. Vickers.)

Permafrost, the perennially frozen subsoil in Earth’s northernmost regions, covers about 15% of land from the Arctic Ocean coastline through much of Alaska, northern Canada and northern Eurasia. A multi-institution study led by Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and including the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory discovered that with rising global temperatures, the decomposition of organic matter in permafrost soil during winter can be substantially greater than previously thought.

The new numbers show that permafrost region soils release much more CO2 over the entire year than plants use during the summer. Scientists also found that the CO2 released by permafrost soil during winter could increase 41% by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

The study, which includes data gathered from more than 100 sites in Alaska by several institutions in addition to Argonne, was published in Nature Climate Change. The team’s findings highlight the need for more research on the permafrost region’s CO2 emissions, and demonstrate the significant impact these emissions could have on the greenhouse effect and global warming.