Global warming is clearly happening. The crucial question is ‘How bad can it get?’ Most pundits focus on the capacity of the globalised economy to cut carbon emissions – mainly CO2 from fossil fuel burning and methane emissions by commercial livestock herds. Can they be reduced in time to reverse the increase in global mean surface temperature that has already taken place and those that lie ahead? Every now and then there is mention of the importance of natural means of drawing down greenhouse gases: plant more trees; preserve and encourage wetlands and their accumulation of peat and so on. For several months of the Northern Hemisphere summer the planet’s largest bogs actively sequester carbon in the form of dead vegetation. For the rest of the year they are frozen stiff. Muskeg and tundra form a band across the alluvial plains of great rivers that drain North America and Eurasia towards the Arctic Ocean. The seasonal bogs lie above sediments deposited in earlier river basins and swamps that have remained permanently frozen since the last glacial period. Such permafrost begins at just a few metres below the surface at high latitudes down to as much as a kilometre, becoming deeper, thinner and more patchy until it disappears south of about 60°N except in mountainous areas. Permafrost is melting relentlessly, sometimes with spectacular results broadly known as thermokarst that involves surface collapse, mudslides and erosion by summer meltwater.
Permafrost is a good preserver of organic material, as shown by the almost perfect remains of mammoths and other animals that have been found where rivers have eroded their frozen banks. The latest spectacular find is a mummified wolf pup unearthed by a gold prospector from 57 ka-old permafrost in the Yukon, Canada. She was probably buried when a wolf den collapsed. Thawing exposes buried carbonaceous material to processes that release CO2, as does the drying-out of peat in more temperate climes. It has long been known that the vast reserves of carbon preserved in frozen ground and in gas hydrate in sea-floor sediments present an immense danger of accelerated greenhouse conditions should permafrost thaw quickly and deep seawater heats up; the first is certainly starting to happen in boreal North America and Eurasia. Research into Arctic soils had suggested that there is a potential mitigating factor. Iron-3 oxides and hydroxides, the colorants of soils that overlie permafrost, have chemical properties that allow them to trap carbon, in much the same way that they trap arsenic by adsorption on the surface of their molecular structure (see: Screening for arsenic contamination, September 2008).
But, as in the case of arsenic, mineralogical trapping of carbon and its protection from oxidation to CO2 can be thwarted by bacterial action (Patzner, M.S. and 10 others 2020. Iron mineral dissolution releases iron and associated organic carbon during permafrost thaw. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 6329; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20102-6). Monique Patzner of the University of Tuebingen, Germany, and her colleagues from Germany, Denmark, the UK and the US have studied peaty soils overlying permafrost in Sweden that occurs north of the Arctic Circle. Their mineralogical and biological findings came from cores driven through the different layers above deep permafrost. In the layer immediately above permanently frozen ground the binding of carbon to iron-3 minerals certainly does occur. However, at higher levels that show evidence of longer periods of thawing there is an increase of reduced iron-2 dissolved in the soil water along with more dissolved organic carbon – i.e. carbon prone to oxidation to carbon dioxide. Also, biogenic methane – a more powerful greenhouse gas – increases in the more waterlogged upper sediments. Among the active bacteria are varieties whose metabolism involves the reduction of insoluble iron in ferric oxyhdroxide minerals to the soluble ferrous form (iron-2). As in the case of arsenic contamination of groundwater, the adsorbed contents of iron oxyhydroxides are being released as a result of powerful reducing conditions.
Applying their results to the entire permafrost inventory at high northern latitudes, the team predicts a worrying scenario. Initial thawing can indeed lock-in up to tens of billion tonnes of carbon once preserved in permafrost, yet this amounts to only a fifth of the carbon present in the surface-to-permafrost layer of thawing, at best. In itself, the trapped carbon is equivalent to between 2 to 5 times the annual anthropogenic release of carbon by burning fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it is destined by reductive dissolution of its host minerals to be emitted eventually, if thawing continues. This adds to the even vaster potential releases of greenhouse gases in the form of biogenic methane from waterlogged ground. However, there is some evidence to the contrary. During the deglaciation between 15 to 8 thousand years ago – except for the thousand years of the Younger Dryas cold episode – land-surface temperatures rose far more rapidly than happening at present. A study of carbon isotopes in air trapped as bubbles in Antarctic ice suggests that methane emissions from organic carbon exposed to bacterial action by thawing permafrost were much lower than claimed by Patzner et al. for present-day, slower thawing (see: Old carbon reservoirs unlikely to cause massive greenhouse gas release, study finds. Science Daily, 20 February 2020) – as were those released by breakdown of submarine gas hydrates.