Alaska’s huge climate mystery — and its global consequences

Read the full story from the Washington Post.

In recent years, climate scientists have grown increasingly concerned about a carbon problem in the far north.

The fear is that with the higher latitudes of the planet warming extremely rapidly, that heat itself, and some of its consequences – such as raging wildfires in northern forests – could unleash a climate disaster. Perennially frozen northern soils, known as permafrost, contain enormous amounts of carbon because the slow and cold chemistry of the Arctic makes them the repository of thousands of years of frozen plant remains. Warming could cause this plant matter to break down, be decomposed by bacteria and emit ancient carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane.

And the amounts of carbon involved are enormous – one common estimate is that there’s more than twice as much carbon stored in northern permafrost as there is currently wafting about the planet’s atmosphere.

Now, though, a major and surprising new report from the U.S. Geological Survey would appear to undercut, significantly, this worry, at least for one key northern region: the U.S. state of Alaska. In the process, the document raises deep questions about what the true carbon consequences of Alaska’s ongoing warming will be – a mystery whose solution may also implicate still greater carbon stores across Arctic regions in Canada and Siberia.

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