This quote from John Muir helps to capture why everyone needs to care just a little bit more about the changes happening in the polar regions of the Earth.
What happens in the Arctic...
There's another great saying I learned from Dr. George Kling, a co-PI on this project. Unlike the saying "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," the same is not true for the Arctic. He called it the Anti-Vegas Rule. What happens in the Arctic, does NOT stay in the Arctic.
The Arctic, and Antarctic are far from closed systems. Yes, they seems far away, and unfamiliar to most of us (though hopefully you have a better since of what it is like from reading along in my journals), but the changes going on in the polar regions have true implications for us at home, and around the world.
The Arctic has been a major focus of study because climatic changes have been occurring faster and to a higher degree in the Arctic versus compared to the rest of the world. I am going to focus on increasing annual temperatures, however there are other very important changes such as precipitation patterns that need to be considered as well.
Observed global average changes (black line), model simulations using only changes in natural factors (solar and volcanic) in green, and model simulations with the addition of human-induced emissions (blue). Climate changes since 1950 cannot be explained by natural factors or variability, and can only be explained by human factors. (Figure source: adapted from Huber and Knutti1)
The IPCC recently came out with their latest report stating that global climate change, including global warming, is happening and states that human influences are strongly connected to causing many of the changes we are seeing. You can read more of this report here.
Projected change in average annual temperature over the period 2071-2099 (compared to the period 1970-1999) under a low scenario that assumes rapid reductions in emissions and concentrations of heat-trapping gases (RCP 2.6), and a higher scenario that assumes continued increases in emissions (RCP 8.5). (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC)
The Arctic has seen surface temperatures increase in the past 50+ years between 2-4ºC, which is by as much as 7.2ºF! This is drastic enough that some places are seeing major reductions in amount of sea ice, and amount of snowfall.
Global annual average temperature (as measured over both land and oceans) has increased by more than 1.5°F (0.8°C) since 1880 (through 2012). Red bars show temperatures above the long-term average, and blue bars indicate temperatures below the long-term average. The black line shows atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO<sub>2</sub>) concentration in parts per million (ppm). While there is a clear long-term global warming trend, some years do not show a temperature increase relative to the previous year, and some years show greater changes than others. These year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are due to natural processes, such as the effects of El Niños, La Niñas, and volcanic eruptions. (Figure source: updated from Karl et al. 20091)
These increases in temperature have been correlated with increased in carbon dioxide concentrations. We have clearly charted a relationship between carbon dioxide atmospheric amounts relating to temperature increases. So the problem becomes, as we release more carbon, we are going to keep increasing our temperatures.
As many of you know a major source for the carbon is from fossil fuels, when we burn gasoline in our cars we emit carbon, or when we use coal to make electricity, we release carbon. One source of carbon that we often forget, is carbon that is stored in permafrost since it is, after all, buried in the ground far from where we live.
Permafrost, A Carbon Time Bomb
Byron Crump at the Wolverine Lake thermokarst. As the permafrost layer thaws the ground can slump away causing this large area of erosion to form. The once frozen organic matter contained in the soil is now exposed to microbes and sunlight allowing it to decay and turn into gas in the atmosphere.
Permafrost, if you recall from my previous journals, is like a giant slab of frozen ground that lies beneath the arctic tundra. In this frozen soil are plants, and remains of animals from hundreds to thousands of years ago. As this soil thaws those materials start to break down. One of the major contributors to this break down are microbes. Microbes will eat this organic material and release carbon dioxide (just like we eat food and then release carbon dioxide).
There are other contributors that are just as important, if not even more important in this release of carbon as well, UV sunlight. You can read more about the influence of sunlight on this carbon release from Regina Brinker’s PolarTREC expedition with Dr. Rose Cory.
It becomes very important for us to understand how this release of carbon into the atmosphere could impact each and every one of us. Because, as you recall from earlier, we said this isn't Vegas... what happens in the Arctic, DOESN'T stay in the Arctic!
Permafrost is estimated to contain twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere- as this melts and releases carbon it is believed that 190 billion tons of carbon could be released- since 1850, the duration of the entire human industrial age, has released only about twice that amount! (http://www.wunderground.com/resources/climate/melting_permafrost.asp)
We also have to remember that methane is another potent greenhouse gas that will also be released as the permafrost melts. Methane is a gas given off by anaerobic respiration- something certain microbes perform when oxygen isn't available. As the active layer becomes thicker, even if oxygen isn't available to microbes, they can also continue to break carbon down to make methane. Here's the bad news, methane is 30x stronger at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is! As the permafrost melts it has the potential to add sequestered carbon and methane.
It Doesn't Stay Put
The carbon (both carbon dioxide and methane) that is released in the Arctic will circulate, entering the northern hemisphere, were the United States is, within 1 year, and will further mix to impact the rest of the global atmosphere within 4 years. The potential warming associated with the carbon release will be felt worldwide. This will change ecosystems, we will be warmer in many areas, precipitation patterns will change; these in turn will change the plant life, and eventually the animal and human lifestyles as well. We need to care about what happens in the Arctic, and microbes are playing a role in those events.
In case you were unable to take part in my PolarConnect web event it is now archived, you can view it here.