Permafrost is comprised of the soil and mosses that usually remain frozen year round near the North and South Poles. But as global temperatures have creeped higher -- especially near the poles -- polar permafrost has thawed, allowing decomposing organic matter to release increased amounts of methane into the air. The planet-warming capabilities of methane are 33 times stronger than those of CO2.
Researchers at Florida State University say it's not just a hypothetical; it's already happening. In traveling to Sweden multiple times to collect soil samples, researchers showed that permafrost is decomposing more rapidly, meaning more methane and other gasses are escaping at heightened rates.
Jeff Chanton, an oceanography professor at Florida State who led the research, says that should the permafrost melt completely, the atmosphere would experience five times the current levels of methane.
"The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems," he added.
The findings of Chanton and his fellow researchers were recently featured in the newest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We’ve known for a while now that permafrost is thawing," said the paper's lead author, Suzanne Hodgkins, a doctoral student chemical oceanography at Florida State. "But what we’ve found is that the associated changes in plant community composition in the polar regions could lead to way more carbon being released into the atmosphere as methane."
[Florida State University]