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Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback


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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Figure 1: Global average surface air temperature anomaly with respect to baseline runs with no carbon sequestered in permafrost soil layers.
Figure 2: Changes in the size of each Earth system carbon pool in response to the addition of permafrost carbon to the UVic ESCM.
Figure 3: Evolution of atmospheric CO2 concentration in response to a cessation of anthropogenic CO2 and sulphate emissions in the year 2013.


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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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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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Correspondence to Andrew H. MacDougall.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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MacDougall, A., Avis, C. & Weaver, A. Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature Geosci 5, 719–721 (2012).

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