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See Inside December 2009

Arctic Climate Threat--Methane from Thawing Permafrost

Arctic permafrost is already thawing, creating lakes that emit methane. The heat-trapping gas could dramatically accelerate global warming. How big is the threat? What can be done?



Courtesy of Katey Walter Anthony

Touchdown on the gravel runway at Cherskii in remote northeastern Siberia sent the steel toe of a rubber boot into my buttocks. The shoe had sprung free from gear stuffed between me and my three colleagues packed into a tiny prop plane. This was the last leg of my research team’s five-day journey from the University of Alaska Fairbanks across Russia to the Northeast Science Station in the land of a million lakes, which we were revisiting as part of our ongoing efforts to monitor a stirring giant that could greatly speed up global warming.

These expeditions help us to understand how much of the perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, in Siberia and across the Arctic is thawing, or close to thawing, and how much methane the process could generate. The question grips us—and many scientists and policy makers—because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, packing 25 times more heating power, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. If the permafrost thaws rapidly because of global warming worldwide, the planet could get hotter more quickly than most models now predict. Our data, combined with complementary analyses by others, are revealing troubling trends.

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