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Accelerating Atmospheric CO2 Growth from Economic Activity, Carbon Intensity, and Efficiency of Natural Carbon Sinks

AMS Climate Change Audio - Environmental Science Seminar Series (ESSS)

09/28/08 • 113 min

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The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is the single largest human perturbation of the climate system. Its rate of change reflects the balance between human-driven carbon emissions and the dynamics of a number of terrestrial and ocean processes that remove or emit CO2. It is the long term evolution of this balance that will determine to a large extent the speed and magnitude of climate change and the mitigation requirements to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at any given level. Dr. Canadell will present the most recent trends in global carbon sources and sinks, updated for the first time to the year 2007, with particularly focus on major shifts occurring since 2000. Dr. Canadell’s research indicates that the underlying drivers of changes in atmospheric CO2 growth include: i) increased human-induced carbon emissions, ii) stagnation of the carbon intensity of the global economy, and iii) decreased efficiency of natural carbon sinks. New Estimates of Carbon Storage in Arctic Soils and Implications in a Changing Environment The Arctic represents approximately 13% of the total land area of the Earth, and arctic tundra occupies roughly 5 million square kilometers. Arctic tundra soils represent a major storage pool for dead organic carbon, largely due to cold temperatures and saturated soils in many locations that prevent its decomposition. Prior estimates of carbon stored in tundra soils range from 20-29 kg of soil organic carbon (SOC) per square meter. These estimates however, were based on data collected from only the top 20-40 cm of soil, and were sometimes extrapolated to 100 cm. It is our understanding that large quantities of SOC are stored at greater depths, through the annual freezing and thawing motion of the soils (cryoturbation), and potentially frozen in the permafrost. Recent detailed analysis of Arctic soils by Dr. Epstein and his colleagues found that soil organic carbon values averaged 34.8 kg per square meter, representing an increase of approximately 40% over the prior estimates. Additionally, 38% of the total soil organic carbon was found in the permafrost. Past, Present and Future Changes in Permafrost and Implications for a Changing Carbon Budget Presence of permafrost is one of the major factors that turn northern ecosystems into an efficient natural carbon sink. Moreover, a significant amount of carbon is sequestered in the upper several meters to several tens of meters of permafrost. Because of that, the appearance and disappearance of permafrost within the northern landscapes have a direct impact on the efficiency of northern ecosystems to sequester carbon in soil, both near the ground surface and in deeper soil layers. Recent changes in permafrost may potentially transform the northern ecosystems from an effective carbon sink to a significant source of carbon for the Earth’s atmosphere. Additional emissions of carbon from thawing permafrost may be in the form of CO2 or methane depending upon specific local conditions. Dr. Romanovsky will present information on changes in terrestrial and subsea permafrost in the past during the last glacial-interglacial cycle and on the most recent trends in permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere. He will further discuss the potential impact of these changes in permafrost (including a short discussion on potential changes in methane gas clathrates) on the global carbon cycle. Dr. Romanovsky’s research suggests that permafrost in North America and Northern Eurasia shows a substantial warming during the last 20 to 30 years. The magnitude of warming varied with location, but was typically from 0.5 to 2°C at 15 meters depth. Thawing of the Little Ice Age permafrost is on-going at many locations. There are some indications that the late-Holocene permafrost started to thaw at some specific undisturbed locations in the European Northeast, in the Northwest and East Siberia, and in Alaska.


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