There is twice as much carbon in Arctic soils and permafrost than there is in the atmosphere. As a warmer world causes permafrost like this to thaw, carbon decomposes and is released to the atmosphere.
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Courtesy of Ted Schuur

Arctic Tundra May Contribute to Warmer World
News story originally written on May 27, 2009

Global warming is causing frozen soil to thaw in the Arctic. A team of scientists has been looking at how this is changing the tundra and how thawing soils are affecting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

There is a large amount of carbon in the frozen soil. As the soil thaws, carbon can be released into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases, which causes more warming.

Carbon moves around the Earth in the carbon cycle. The researchers wondered how carbon that has been in the frozen soils for hundreds to thousands of years, moved through the carbon cycle. They used radiocarbon dating to figure out where the carbon goes as the soil thaws.

Their results showed that when soil first begins to thaw, more plants are able to grow. The plants remove carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. This makes the amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere greater than the amount added to the atmosphere from the soil. But the pattern does not continue this way. With more thawing, more carbon is added to the atmosphere than is taken out by plants.

This information is helping scientists make predictions about how much carbon will be released to the atmosphere from Arctic tundra in the future.

Last modified June 26, 2009 by Lisa Gardiner.

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