One of the abiding concerns regarding climate change has been the prospect of a shift in the balance of certain natural systems that could speed up global warming. One such shift is the melting of arctic ice, which reduces the amount of the reflective ice and increases the surface of dark open water, which will then absorb heat. Another natural shift that could also amplify climate change is the melting of permafrost.
As the ground warms, frozen organic matter thaws, releasing methane—a greenhouse gas 22 times more powerful than CO2. Methane is the same powerful greenhouse gas that is created in dairy-manure lagoons and landfills.
For thousands of years, organic matter has been frozen in the ground in places like Siberia and Alaska. A recent study in the journal Nature reports on the troubling melting of permafrost. Normally only several inches of permafrost thaw during the short arctic summers, but scientists have reported unfrozen ground as far at 10 feet deep. As a result, additional methane emissions are being released, enough potentially to increase the pace of climate change.
According to Edward Schurr of the University of Florida, who was part of the team that published the finding in Nature, warming could happen "20 to 30 percent faster than from fossil fuel emissions alone. You are significantly speeding things up by releasing this carbon."
A NASA scientist who wasn’t part of the study team offered this observation about the implications of the study: "The survey provides an important warning that global climate warming is likely to be worse than expected. Arctic permafrost has been like a wild card."
Check out this YouTube video about the effects of melting permafrost: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wofv9o0j1Ew.