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Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback

Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 719721 (2012) | Download Citation


Permafrost soils contain an estimated 1,700 Pg of carbon, almost twice the present atmospheric carbon pool1. As permafrost soils thaw owing to climate warming, respiration of organic matter within these soils will transfer carbon to the atmosphere, potentially leading to a positive feedback2. Models in which the carbon cycle is uncoupled from the atmosphere, together with one-dimensional models, suggest that permafrost soils could release 7–138 Pg carbon by 2100 (refs 3, 4). Here, we use a coupled global climate model to quantify the magnitude of the warming generated by the feedback between permafrost carbon release and climate. According to our simulations, permafrost soils will release between 68 and 508 Pg carbon by 2100. We show that the additional surface warming generated by the feedback between permafrost carbon and climate is independent of the pathway of anthropogenic emissions followed in the twenty-first century. We estimate that this feedback could result in an additional warming of 0.13–1.69 °C by 2300. We further show that the upper bound for the strength of the feedback is reached under the less intensive emissions pathways. We suggest that permafrost carbon release could lead to significant warming, even under less intensive emissions trajectories.

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The authors are grateful to NSERC for support in the form of CGS fellowships awarded to A.H.M.D. and C.A.A., as well as a Discovery Grant awarded to A.J.W.

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  1. School of Earth and Ocean Science, University of Victoria, 3800 Finnerty Road, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3V6, Canada

    • Andrew H. MacDougall
    • , Christopher A. Avis
    •  & Andrew J. Weaver


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A.H.M.D., A.J.W. and C.A.A. formulated the model experiments and wrote the paper. A.H.M.D. performed modifications to the ESCM, conducted experiments and analysed the results.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Andrew H. MacDougall.

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