Monday, May 25, 2015

Sleeping Giant in the Arctic

Huge amounts of carbon are contained in sediments, soils and vegetation in the Arctic. Rising temperatures in the Arctic threaten to cause much of this carbon to be released to the atmosphere.

On May 23, 2015, temperatures in Alaska were as high as 91°F (32.78°C), as illustrated by the image below.

[ image credit: US National Weather Service Alaska ]
High temperatures were reached at the city of Eagle, located on the southern bank of the Yukon River, at an elevation of 853 ft (260 m). High temperatures at such a location will cause meltwater, aggravating the situation well beyond the local area.
A bank of permafrost thaws near the Kolyma
River in Siberia. Credit: University of Georgia

Carbon contained in soils will thus become increasingly exposed under the combined impact of rising temperatures and the associated growing amounts of meltwater. The meltwater can additionally cause erosion further downstream, thus making carbon at many locations become more prone to be consumed by microbes and released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane.

A recent study found that, at a location where the Kolyma river in Siberia carved into the permafrost and exposed the carbon, microbes converted 60% of the carbon into carbon dioxide in two weeks time.

Gary Houser, who recently launched the movie Sleeping Giant in the Arctic, elaborates on the threat of emissions from thawing permafrost:
This immense release would likely feed on itself, raising temperatures that continue melting more and more permafrost in a vicious, frightening, and unstoppable cycle. A tipping point could well be crossed, at which time human intervention is no longer possible. Temperatures across the planet could soar, setting in motion catastrophic levels of drought and food shortage. All life support systems on earth and life forms themselves could be placed under severe stress.

The colossal scale of the danger - and the observation of those factors lining up that could trigger it - demand that humanity exercise the precautionary principle. All political decision-making related to carbon emissions must be based on the understanding that a catastrophic consequence is looming, and the window of time for prevention quickly diminishing.
Can Thawing Permafrost Cause Runaway Global Heating?
by Gary Houser


US National Weather Service Alaska

University of Georgia

Sleeping Giant in the Arctic

Sleeping Giant in the Arctic

Posted by Sam Carana on Monday, May 25, 2015


  1. Question:
    Are these warm temperatures "local" or from a northern warm front?
    ie warm due to a local methane release or warm air from the south or?

    1. High local methane levels will have contributed to these high temperatures, but there are many further contributors, including recent typhoons, high sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and changed wind patterns, including to jet streams and polar vortex, as discussed in this and this recent posts. In the end, these are all feedbacks of global warming caused by people's emissions, threatening to cause rapid further warming.

  2. I just published a translated to French version of this article.
    I also added a small segment on forest and tundra fires as 2014 was a record year in forest/tundra fires all across Northern canada.
    If you wish to check it out, it's here :

  3. The sea ice extent for 25 May has just dipped below 2 standard deviations. I am wondering if its reasonable to expect a sharp decline from the current trajectory as this heated river water enters the Arctic Ocean from heat wave affected land mass - notwithstanding other eventualities. There'd be a raft of records broken as the ice sheet heads towards its September low.