Climate change: High risk of permafrost thaw
Arctic tundra just north of the continental divide in the Brooks range
There has been a much bigger response than I expected (I mean, I think this stuff is cool and important but I didn't realize how interested the science journalism community would be).
Here's a link to the Institute of Arctic Biology's "in the news" site with some articles about the article!
The take home nuggets from the article are:
1. The amount of organic matter stored in permafrost-region soils is huge-around 1700 gigatonnes. This is twice as much carbon as is in the atmosphere, four times what humans have emitted since the industrial revolution, and (this is the one that gets me) more carbon than exists in all living things (pile up all the blue whales, redwoods, termites, and bacteria and they won't equal the northern soil pool).
2. This carbon is there because of chilly soils. Any spruce needles, dead roots, or squirrel bodies that fall into the soil are refrigerated (or frozen completely) which slows decomposition.
3. As the climate warms a portion of this soil carbon will be released as carbon dioxide and methane (two of the major greenhouse gases). Because this release will come from remote and distributed landscapes it will be particularly difficult to contain. We estimate that carbon from the permafrost region will have more than twice the impact on global climate than carbon released by deforestation over the next century. However, emissions from fossil fuels are predicted to remain the biggest driver of climate change. Permafrost carbon simply amplifies the impact of greenhouse gases we emit. The estimates we generated indicate that this extra carbon could increase the impact of human emissions by 20-30%.
Thermokarst feature where permafrost has collapsed near the Toolik Field Station. This thaw slump formed in three months this summer.
Old Ben Franklin is right in this case, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."