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News Release - New research shows the warming of permafrost across the Canadian Arctic stands to enhance levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

New research from Queen’s University research team lead by Professor Melissa Lafrenière and Julien Fouché (formerly of Queen’s, currently Assistant Professor at Institut Agro, Montpellier, France) has revealed that thawing Canadian permafrost will lead to an increase in the availability of easily degradable organic matter and nutrients, which stand to enhance the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which could fuel climate warming. 

When organic matter in the permafrost is frozen, it dramatically slows the rates of organic matter breakdown by respiration in soils (which releases of carbon dioxide). However, as permafrost warms or thaws the rates of microbial respiration increase, and thus thawed or warmed permafrost containing the ricorganic matter and nutrients to support this microbial activity, becomes a source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 

In addition to thawing enhancing the release of the soil organic matter as carbon dioxide via respiration, when liquid water comes into contact with thawed permafrost, the water will dissolve the soil organic matter, and moving water will carry the dissolved organic mattewith it. This organic material carried in the water is also subject to decomposition to carbon dioxide via respiration by aquatic microorganisms.   

“There is a major gap in the knowledge of the abundance and type of carbon in Canadian permafrost and also the potential for this carbon to be released/mobilized upon thaw of permafrost. This new research helps fill that gap.” 

"It’s like permafrost thaw is setting up a self perpetuating cycle. Warming of the permafrost leads to the release of all the right ingredients to fuel the release of more carbon dioxide which leads to more warming, which leads to more thaw and more carbon dioxide, etc.” 

Melissa LafrenièreProfessor, Geography and Planning, Queen’s University 

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Anne CraigMedia Relations Officer 

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