6.2 Improve and expand understanding of how warming and thawing of permafrost influence the vulnerability of soil carbon, including the potential release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to the atmosphere.

Permafrost contains vast quantities of earth’s soil organic carbon stocks—twice as much as the current atmospheric pool, which may be decomposed and released as greenhouse gases (including CO2 and CH4) when permafrost soils thaw. This carbon increases atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and contributes to further warming, with regional and global climate impacts. The amount of carbon that could be released from thawing permafrost is dependent on multiple factors, and remains very difficult to quantify, yet is an essential consideration across multiple scales for projecting future climate change. Improved understanding of the vulnerability of permafrost carbon to decomposition and the potential magnitude of carbon release will improve both empirical and modeling efforts designed to identify and quantify how permafrost thaw will impact climate, ecosystems, and society.

Performance elements from the Arctic research plan

  • 6.2.1 Support field-based research and monitoring focused on quantifying the key processes controlling soil carbon cycling at northern latitudes and potential carbon release to the atmosphere, including temperature and hydrological effects.
  • 6.2.2 Support research to improve scaling methods for estimating CO2 and CH4 emissions from the permafrost region (including that which is conducted by the SEARCH Permafrost Action Team) to link multi-agency investments in soil carbon research that culminates in synthesis publications.
  • 6.2.3 Utilize empirical, multi-scale approaches to make spatially-explicit estimates of vulnerability of permafrost carbon and release of both CO2 and CH4.
  • 6.2.4 Utilize empirical, multi-scale approaches to make spatially explicit estimates of the potential extent and modes of abrupt permafrost thaw, including thermokarst and cryogenic landslides, and of the downstream effects of these events on microbial processes and carbon fluxes.
  • 6.2.5 Better understand the rate of subsea permafrost degradation and its role in methane gas hydrate decomposition and feedbacks to the climate system. Develop estimates of contributions to atmospheric carbon from subsea permafrost sources at present and under future scenarios.

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