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NASA warns Arctic thaw could have huge impact on global warming

By Matt Brian (The Verge) - June 12, 2013

The Arctic’s permafrost soils have NASA worried. Scientists monitoring carbon levels in the top layers of Arctic soils have identified huge deposits that, if thawed sufficiently, could upset its carbon balance and magnify the impacts of global warming. The agency estimates that the Arctic’s permafrost soils store as much as 1,850 petagrams (one petagram equals 1 billion metric tons), comprising around half of all the carbon stored in Earth’s soils — most of it lying within 3 meters of the surface.

“One percent of permafrost methane has the same environmental impact as 99 percent of carbon dioxide”

Worried that the permafrosts might not be as permanent as the name suggests, NASA believes the warming of Earth’s surface could lead to the release of the Arctic’s carbon stores into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. If the Earth gets warmer and drier, scientists expect most of the carbon to be released as carbon dioxide, but if it gets warmer and wetter, most will be released as methane. Methane is considered the more potent greenhouse gas and NASA is making it one of its top priorities to predict potential emissions.

Studies have found that global warming is making the Arctic greener, adding more layers of organic carbon beneath the soil. NASA is leading the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) project which will study how climate change is affecting the Arctic’s carbon cycle. By observing the permafrosts, scientists hope to identify how global warming is impacting the frozen land mass, providing a better insight into Earth’s future climate.