Arctic tundra emits more carbon in winter than plants can absorb in summer: study

Phd candidate at Dalhousie University one of 75 co-authors of new paper in Nature Climate Change

The community of Apex, Nvt., is seen from Iqaluit on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The community of Apex, Nvt., is seen from Iqaluit on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Research has found Arctic soil has warmed to the point where it releases more carbon in winter than northern plants can absorb during the summer.

The finding means the extensive belt of tundra around the globe — a vast reserve of carbon that dwarfs what’s held in the atmosphere — is becoming a source of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

“There’s a net loss,” said Dalhousie University’s Jocelyn Egan, one of 75 co-authors of a paper published in Nature Climate Change. “In a given year, more carbon is being lost than what is being taken in. It is happening already.”

The research by scientists in 12 countries and from dozens of institutions is the latest warning that northern natural systems that once reliably kept carbon out of the atmosphere are starting to release it.

Until now, little was known about winter emissions from permafrost and the soil above it. Even scientists assumed the microbial processes that release the gases came to a halt in the cold.

“Most people think in the winter, there’s no respiration, that the microbes eating the carbon that produce these emissions aren’t active, which isn’t actually the case,” Egan said.

The scientists placed carbon dioxide monitors along the ground at more than 100 sites around the circumpolar Arctic to see what was actually happening and took more than 1,000 measurements.

They found much more carbon was being released than previously thought. The results found carbon dioxide emissions of 1.7 billion tonnes a year are about twice as high as previous estimates.

Arctic plants are thought to take in just over one billion tonnes of the gas from the atmosphere every year during growing season. The net result is that Arctic soil around the globe is probably already releasing more than 600 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

Scientists previously thought carbon absorbed by tundra plants during the summer more or less made up for what was emitted in the winter as well as for what was released from melting permafrost during warm months.

That’s not what’s happening, said Egan.

“We’re seeing that the value emitted in the winter is larger than the net uptake for the growing season.”

What’s more, the pace of the emissions is likely to increase.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, emissions from northern soil would be likely to release 41 per cent more carbon by the end of the century.

But the Arctic is already warming at three times the pace of the rest of the globe. Even if significant mitigation efforts are made, those emissions will increase by 17 per cent, said the report.

Egan notes the research didn’t measure methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide that is also released from soil.

READ MORE: Oceans, glaciers at increasing risk, including Canada’s, climate report says

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Fentanyl was among the drugs seized by New Hazelton RCMP in a big bust in early January. (File photo)
New Hazelton RCMP arrest five, seize drugs and large amount of cash

Police find suspected heroin, fentanyl and crystal meth during early January drug bust

Smithers Local Health area reported 32 new cases of COVID-19 for the second week of January. (BC CDC graphic)
Weekly new cases of COVID-19 rise to 32 in Smithers LHA Jan. 10 – 16

Northern Health reports 35 new cases for 501 active, 44 hospitalized, 17 in critical care Wednesday

Brett Alexander Jones is wanted on several warrants province-wide, in connection with multiple charges. Jan. 21, 2021. Kitimat RCMP photo
Kitimat RCMP searching for man wanted on several warrants province-wide

Jones is described as a five-foot 10-inches Caucasian man, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Smithers Secondary School students participate in a high performance workout in advance of the school becoming a campus of the Canadian Sport School. (Thom Barker photo)
Smithers Secondary chosen for campus of elite sport school

The Canadian Sport School provides supports and resources for high performance athletes

Robin Price in action with Thompson Rivers University women’s soccer team. (TRU photo)
Former Smithers athlete helps Kamloops homeless people

Robin Price, now a fourth year nursing student and soccer player at TRU, spearheads fundraiser

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read