From: Alfred Wegener Institute
Published November 20, 2014 12:30 PM

Abrupt rise in greenhouse gases at end of last ice age may be because of permafrost

One of the most abrupt rises in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at the end of the last ice age took place about 14,600 years ago. Ice core data show that the CO2 concentration at that time increased by more than 10 ppm (parts per million, unit of measure for the composition of gases) within 200 years. This CO2 increase, i.e. approx. 0.05 ppm per year, was significantly less than the current rise in atmospheric CO2 of 2-3 ppm in the last decade caused by fossil fuels.

These data describe an abrupt change in the global carbon cycle during the transition from the last ice age to the present-day warm interglacial and allow conclusions to be drawn about similar processes that could play a role in the future.

To determine the origin of the greenhouse gas, a team around by the geoscientists and climate researchers Dr. Peter Köhler and Dr. Gregor Knorr from the Alfred Wegener Institute has carried out computer simulations focusing on the new interpretation of these CO2 data. These calculations were motivated by new radiocarbon data (14C) that provide information on the age of the CO2 released to the atmosphere. The age of the carbon then allows conclusions to be drawn about the carbon source.

“The virtual lack of radiocarbon in the CO2 that was released into the atmosphere shows us that the carbon must have been very old,” says Köhler. The carbon therefore cannot be originated from the deep ocean, Köhler adds: “The carbon stored in the deep ocean has been subject to exchange with the atmosphere over a period of millennia. In the atmosphere 14C has its only source. It is produced through the impact of galactic cosmic rays on molecules in the atmosphere.” However, radiocarbon is unstable and decays with a half-life of around 5,700 years.

The atmospheric data of CO2 and 14C can only be explained if a carbon source is assumed that contains virtually no 14C any more – thus the greenhouse gases must have had another source than the deep ocean.

Permafrost soil contains, to some extent, very old organic material, which is released in the form of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane when the soil thaws. Permafrost soil thus might be a possible source of old carbon. The thawing of Arctic permafrost soil might have been caused by a sudden resumption of large-scale Atlantic heat transport in the ocean that initiated the Bølling/Allerød warm period in the high northern hemisphere.

Continue reading at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Permafrost image via Shutterstock.

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