Ice-free Arctic Ocean allowed ancient carbon leaks

Speleothems like these form fastest when the permafrost has thawed. Image: By James St John, via Wikimedia Commons

As the world warms, more greenhouse gas will enter the atmosphere. Researchers now think an ice-free Arctic Ocean explains how and why.

LONDON, 10 January, 2020 – Deep in a cave in Siberia, Israeli, Russian and British scientists have identified evidence of periodic losses of carbon from the permafrost. And the unexpected link is not simply with peak periods of bygone global warming, but with an ice-free Arctic Ocean.

The escape into the atmosphere of prodigious volumes of methane and carbon dioxide from the thawing soils is in step not with average planetary temperature rise, but with long periods when the Arctic Ocean is free of ice every summer.

Fact one: about one quarter of land in the northern hemisphere is now, and has been for much of the last half million years, permanently frozen, and with it about twice as much atmospheric carbon – in the form of peat and preserved vegetation – as there exists freely in the planetary atmosphere.

Fact two: in the most recent decades, sea ice has been both thinning and dwindling rapidly, and the polar ocean could by 2050 become almost entirely ice-free in the summer months.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia”

And this twist in the tale of a rapidly-warming Arctic is preserved in stalagmite formations in a cave deep beneath the rim of the Arctic Circle in Siberia.

The chronology of stalagmite and stalactite development can be established precisely by the pattern of uranium and lead isotope deposits in formations, built up imperceptibly by the steady drip of water from, and through, the soils far above.

That is, the speleothems – a geologist’s catch-all word for both stalactite and stalagmite – form fastest when the permafrost has thawed. And unexpectedly, the periods of thaw did not match the peaks of interglacial warming during the last 1.35 million years. They did however coincide with periods when the Arctic was ice-free in the summer.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice in the future will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia,” said Gideon Henderson of the University of Oxford, and one of the authors of a new study in the journal Nature.

Permafrost in jeopardy

The argument goes like this: if there is no sea ice then more heat and moisture is delivered from the ocean to the atmosphere, with warmer air flowing over Siberia, and therefore more autumn snowfall.

A blanket of snow insulates the soil beneath from the extreme winter cold, so ground temperatures go up, to unsettle the permafrost and start a thaw that leads to accelerated plant decay and ever-increasing escape of carbon dioxide and methane that would otherwise have been frozen into the permafrost.

So the stalagmites endure as evidence of these warmer soils and survive as a direct link to periods of ice-free ocean.

“If these processes continue during modern climate change, future loss of summer Arctic sea ice will accelerate the thawing of Siberian permafrost,” the scientists say. – Climate News Network