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Some models suggest that a portion of that carbon will be released as methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has almost 28 times the warming influence of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale.
In the new study, researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, NOAA, NASA and other university partners examined 29 years of continuous, precision measurements of atmospheric methane and other gases from the NOAA Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, which is part of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network.
Trends in temperature and methane are not consistent over the 29-year record at Barrow, suggesting very large temperature changes in this region have not influenced methane emissions coming from the North Slope region.
This finding is critical to science’s understanding of how the Arctic is responding to the unprecedented disruption of its climate and the degradation of permafrost.
“Our study suggests that over the past 30 years, these processes have balanced out in the study area.” The researchers conclude that observed short-term methane spikes from the Arctic will likely have little impact on global atmospheric methane levels in the long-term.
Trends in temperature and methane at NOAA’s Barrow, AK Observatory from 1986 to 2014 during late summer, fall and early winter (July-December).
As the region warms, this carbon will be released from the permafrost’s icy grip.The lack of significant long-term trends indicates that processes regulating North Slope methane emissions need more study.With little observed change in methane emissions, researchers are further examining the Barrow observatory’s dataset for signs that the permafrost has been emitting carbon dioxide, by far the most significant of the greenhouse gasses, as it may be more affected by large temperature changes (and by extension, melting permafrost) in the Arctic.“There has been a huge increase in Arctic warming, and while we do see spikes in methane due to short-term temperature changes, we’re not seeing a long-term change in methane levels,” said Colm Sweeney, a CIRES scientist working at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder and lead author of the new study.But that doesn’t mean thawing permafrost isn’t releasing carbon, Sweeney said. It just isn’t showing up as methane.” Arctic permafrost contains an estimated 1,000 gigatons (1,000 billion tons) of carbon.