Forest fires are digging carbon holes in the Arctic


But this isolation is being undone by climate change, which is warming the Arctic four times faster than the rest of the planet. “In an unaltered tundra ecosystem, permafrost is protected by vegetation and organic soil layers from global warming,” says climate scientist Yaping Chen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lead author of new article. “However, when a fire occurs, it kills vegetation and removes the insulating organic layers to allow heat to penetrate down along the profile of the soil that melts the permafrost.”

This allows the vegetation to dry more easily i giving it more opportunities to ignite during increasingly frequent storms. (More heat means more hot air rises into the atmosphere, which is how clouds form.) Warmer temperatures due to climate change are already triggering the thawing of the thermokarst, just like an ice cube. it could slowly melt on the counter. But a forest fire is like catching a flame in this bucket.

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To make matters worse, the forest fire darkened the ground by carbonizing it, so it will now even heat up. month quickly in the sun. If the landscape is flat, a melted ice pit will form and grow, because the water also easily absorbs solar radiation. All the vegetation that was previously closed to the ice will also sink to the bottom of the watery pit, darkening it even more.

Permafrost is basically a refrigerator for organic matter, and if it is heated and thawed, microbes begin to proliferate inside it, just as they would in food if you unplug the refrigerator. Only these tundra microbes are chewing millennial organic matter, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. (If there is no stagnant water in the thawed permafrost and the plant material is drier, the microbes will release CO2 instead, this is less likely because craters tend to create small ponds.)

“With thermokarst, deeper and deeper layers of permafrost are exposed to thawing, much more efficiently than without thermokarst,” says Vladimir Romanovsky, a University of Alaska Fairbanks permafrost geophysicist who was not involved in the work. “The thermokarst process can turn a relatively dry surface into a kind of wetland, and wetlands are methane-producing.”

Photography: Christian Andresen and Mark Lara



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