The Mackenzie River Delta in the Canadian Arctic that supports vibrant communities and abundant wildlife all above thin and discontinuous permafrost.

The Permafrost Carbon Climate Feedback

We often picture the Arctic as vast, frozen, and desolate but it is actually home to vibrant communities, diverse ecosystems and it supports an amazing amount of life. Additionally, Arctic permafrost soil provides us a great service: over millennia it has been stockpiling and storing carbon. Slow decomposition rates of organic material and a process known as cryoturbation (the vertical mixing of soil during freeze-thaw cycles) have combined to create the vast stores of permafrost carbon that exist today.

High uncertainty exists around how much carbon is stored in the Permafrost, but it is estimated to be about twice as much as the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. As the climate warms and permafrost thaws, stored carbon has the potential to be released to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. The increase in these greenhouse gas emissions could amplify climate warming and lead to increased permafrost thaw. This is known as the permafrost carbon-climate feedback (PCF). Knowing what drives methane production in the Arctic is an important part of understanding the PCF.

The Arctic is warming more quickly than the rest of the planet. Air temperatures in the Arctic have increased twice as much as global temperatures. Methane is expected to account for 10-25% of total warming from the PCF in the near future. Accurately assessing the effect of natural methane sources and phenomenon like the PCF help prove the importance of reducing man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Arctic researchers, including those at FluxLab, are trying to assess the potential effects of the PCF and its implications for climate change. We measure Arctic methane, using methods FluxLab initially developed for use in oil and gas monitoring, to close a gap in measurement scale between remote sensing and eddy covariance towers. Measuring methane from a moving vehicle (ground, water, or air based) and applying Gaussian dispersion modelling allows us to better understand methane sources, which leads to understanding broader patterns of gas production across the whole ecosystem.

Our hope is to increase measurements in the under-sampled Arctic, and to substantiate the urgency of taking climate action as a northern nation, Canadian communities and informed individuals.

Dan Wesley