Department of Geography

A carbon time bomb?

How will thawing permafrost under a warmer climate affect carbon emissions to the atmosphere?

Making predictions of future climate under global warming is necessary but very difficult. Much of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere is actually absorbed by carbon ‘sinks’ on land and in the oceans, thus acting to reduce the warming. However, this natural carbon cycle is likely to change under global warming. One of the major concerns is the potential for further release of carbon stocks currently held in the permafrost region. 

CYCLOPS is a research consortium that aims to understand the impacts of permafrost thaw and fire on ecosystem Carbon stocks & fluxes, the feedbacks this might have on climate. The CYCLOPS team has been undertaking fieldwork in boreal and Arctic Canada in collaboration with local research projects, looking to determine the extent to which different plant communities insulate their soil and protect permafrost from thawing. Some ecosystems are also prone to burning, which accelerates thawing considerably, so resilience to and recovery from fire may play an important role in permafrost preservation. Finally, free-draining ecosystems such as forests or tundra respond differently to permafrost thaw than peatlands, which tend to have poor drainage. Across all these systems, carbon budgets and fluxes of methane and carbon dioxide are being measured in detail, along with plant and soil attributes to gain a process-based understanding of the interactions between vegetation, soil and permafrost, and the consequences for feedback to climate. 

The wealth of data from these different ecosystems in different stages of their life cycle also allows CYCLOPS to develop more detailed, process-based models of vegetation-permafrost interactions and permafrost thaw, that can be incorporated into our models used for future climate predictions.

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