Permafrost peatlands are approaching a climate ‘tipping point’

29 Mar 2022

Permafrost thawing in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Image: US National Park Service Climate Change Response

Researchers said the frozen peatlands in Europe and western Siberia store around 39bn tonnes of carbon, roughly twice the amount stored in all of Europe’s forests.

New research suggests that permafrost peatlands in Europe and western Siberia are reaching a climate “tipping point”, with thawing that could lead to an “enormous release” of greenhouse gases.

A research team from the University of Leeds and Queen’s University Belfast looked at climate models to examine possible future climates of these regions and the likely impact on their permafrost peatlands.

Future Human

Their projections suggest that by 2040, the climates of Northern Europe will no longer be cold and dry enough to sustain peat permafrost, regardless of efforts to reduce global carbon emissions.

The researchers said this is a concern as the frozen peatlands in Europe and western Siberia store around 39bn tonnes of carbon, roughly twice the amount stored in all of Europe’s forests.

When permafrost thaws, the organic matter starts to decompose. This releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which could increase global temperatures and potentially accelerate the climate emergency.

“Arctic environments are changing rapidly in response to climate change,” said Prof Graeme Swindles of Queen’s University, a co-author of the study that was published in Nature Climate Change.

“Our work shows that frozen peatlands (permafrost peatlands) in Northern Europe and Siberia are on the brink of a tipping point,” Swindles added. “Climate warming is leading to thawing of permafrost and major changes to these ecosystems. This could ultimately lead to an enormous release of greenhouse gases.”

While Europe’s permafrost is in trouble, the team said strong actions to reduce emissions could preserve a climate suitable for permafrost peatlands in parts of western Siberia. This landscape contains almost 14bn tonnes of peat carbon.

Lead author of the study, PHD researcher Richard Fewster said: “Our modelling shows that these fragile ecosystems are on a precipice and even moderate mitigation leads to the widespread loss of suitable climates for peat permafrost by the end of the century.

“But that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel,” Fewster said. “The rate and extent to which suitable climate are lost could be limited, and even partially reversed, by strong climate change mitigation policies.”

The team at Queen’s University worked on the product design and modelling and provided knowledge of permafrost peatland ecology and dynamics for the study, which was led by the University of Leeds.

Permafrost thawing in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Image: US National Park Service Climate Change Response via Flickr (public domain)

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com