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Monitoring changes in wetland extent can help predict the rate of climate change - University of Exeter

Monitoring changes to the amount of wetlands in regions where permafrost is thawing should be at the forefront of efforts to predict future rates of climate change, new research shows.

Permafrost - frozen ground - holds huge amounts of carbon which may be released into the atmosphere as the climate warms and these soils thaw. For this reason it is critically important to know where thaw is taking place and how much carbon is being exposed.

The study measured rates of methane production from thawing peatlands in the boreal region of northern Canada. (University of Exeter)But a new study says that the effects of thaw on the release of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, may be better predicted by monitoring changes in the area of wetlands rather than by investigating how much carbon is being exposed.

The study measured rates of methane production from thawing peatlands in the boreal region of northern Canada. (University of Exeter)

Permafrost thaw is caused by climate change which warms northern high latitudes faster than elsewhere on Earth. The release of permafrost carbon to the atmosphere could accelerate rates of climate change, with some estimates suggesting that potential rates of release could rival those from tropical deforestation. If even a small proportion of the carbon is released in the form of methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, then the feedback becomes even more significant.

There are around 1 million km2 of permafrost peatlands on Earth and they store approximately 20 per cent of the total permafrost carbon stock which is predicted to thaw this century. The rate at which frozen organic soils could potentially decompose is up to five times greater than for frozen mineral soils, and peats are disproportionately likely to be water-logged following thaw, the very conditions that promote methane release.

 

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