Permafrost retreats further north

Buried in the ‘Weather Eye’ page of our paper of record again…

Climate change forcing frozen soil retreat

Mon, Feb 22, 2010

THE PERMANENTLY frozen ground known as permafrost is retreating northward in the area around Canada’s James Bay, a sign of a decades-long regional warming trend, a climate scientist has said.

When permafrost melts, it can liberate the powerful greenhouse gas methane that is locked in the frozen soil.

The amount of methane contained in permafrost around James Bay is slight compared to the vast stores of the chemical found in ancient, deep permafrost in the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia.

The southern edge of permafrost in the James Bay area has moved about 130km (80 miles) north of where it was 50 years ago, Serge Payette of Laval University in Quebec City said in a telephone interview.

It’s a sign that warming is taking hold in this area that straddles the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. Mr Payette said the sites he has studied have warmed by 2 degrees in the last two decades.

Moreover, it shows what dying permafrost looks like. “This is the end of the line for permafrost,” Mr Payette said.

To track the retreat, Mr Payette and his colleagues looked at distinctive plant-covered mounds called palsas that form naturally over ice in the soil of northern peat bogs.

There were up to 90 per cent fewer palsas in bogs around James Bay in 2005 than there were in 2004, the researchers found. Moreover, that was far fewer than those palsas shown in the area in aerial photographs taken in 1957, Mr Payette said.

The trend cannot be conclusively linked to climate change, he said, citing a lack of data in this remote area but he noted that this is the most likely cause. The research was published in the journal Permafrost and Periglacial Processes.

The ability to figure out what happens when permafrost vanishes is important because of its possible impact on climate change.

Arctic emissions of climate-warming methane rose 30.6 per cent from 2003 to 2007, researchers reported last month in the journal Science, a suggestion that global warming could unlock huge amounts of the gas from melting permafrost.

While too early to consider this a trend, this increase was the biggest percentage rise for any region of the world’s wetlands, the Science study found.

Methane has about 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the International Emissions Trading Association.

© 2010 The Irish Times

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2 Responses to Permafrost retreats further north

  1. denis says:

    Can someone enlighten me as to who calculates, and how a country`s Co2 output is measured ? Do they take into consideration the Co2 expended on manufactured goods intended for export —- this Co2 should be put down to whatever country buys these goods, and conversly the Co2 output associated with imported goods should be put down to the purchasing country.
    How do they they handle the Co2 put out by airplanes ?—-does it go by the nationality of the traveller, as it should to get a true picture, and car hire and all the rest.
    Some calculation.
    If a Gov. dept. does it, what external checks are carried out to verify veracity ?

  2. James Nix says:

    Individual countries calculate their emissions and report them centrally to the UN. The EPA collates the data for Ireland.

    Emissions are clocked at the point of manufacture not consumption. Tim Jackson writes on the UK situation: “there are more (hidden) carbon emissions associated with UK consumption patterns than appear from the [reported] numbers… An apparent reduction in emissions of 6 per cent between 1990 and 2004, as reported under UN FCCC guidelines is turned into an 11 per cent increase in emissions, once emissions embedded in trade are taken into account” (Prosperity without Growth, p73)

    Aviation emissions aren’t counted against individual countries and there seems to be varying estimates for greenhouse gas emissions from same.

    You would think we’d have solid figures for train versus plane on the London – Paris route. Alas, no. After eurotunnel said they were the most environmentally friendly way to cross the channel (see the UK aerospace industry retaliated with an advertising standards complaint, pointing out that since aviation operators haven’t published figures for their emissions, eurotunnel’s claim is not made out (

    On that note I’m keen to read independent studies / papers which advance our understanding of aviation GHG emissions; help appreciated!

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