When Arctic permafrost soil thaws, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, but most of the carbon currently escaping from lakes in northern Alaska is relatively young, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. Findings paint less dire climate picture, as ancient emissions are more harmful.
“This finding is crucial, because much of the biomass stored underground in the Arctic is ancient, dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended more than 11,500 years ago,” said Claudia Czimczik, UCI associate professor of Earth system science, who led the study appearing this week in Nature Climate Change. “When the bulk of that very old carbon is recycled and released, we will be looking at a massive net increase in emissions of the gases that worsen global warming.”
But researchers using carbon-14 dating techniques have determined that the carbon being emitted by these Arctic lakes accumulated in recent decades and centuries, versus several millennia, which means that there will be less of an impact on the climate.
“These young carbon pools most likely include comparatively fresh photosynthetic products flushed into the lakes from their surrounding watersheds, organic material from aquatic plants and phytoplankton, or waterborne dissolved inorganic carbon,” said lead author Clayton Elder, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was Ph.D. student at UCI during this project.
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Image via Clayton Elder, University of California, Irvine