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Permafrost Peatlands are much Closer to a Tipping Point

A new study led by the University of Leeds examined possible future climates of these regions and the likely impact on their permafrost peatlands using the most recent generation of climate models.

Shivam Dwivedi
Beautiful Picture of Peatland
Beautiful Picture of Peatland

Researchers warn that permafrost peatlands in Europe and Western Siberia are much closer to a climatic tipping point than previous believed. The frozen peatlands in these areas can store up to 39 billion tonnes of carbon, which is equivalent to twice the amount of carbon stored in all of Europe's forests.

A new study led by the University of Leeds examined possible future climates of these regions and the likely impact on their permafrost peatlands using the most recent generation of climate models.

Research Findings:

According to projections, even with the most aggressive efforts to reduce global carbon emissions and thus limit global warming, Northern European climates will no longer be cold and dry enough to sustain peat permafrost by 2040.

Strong emissions-cutting measures, on the other hand, could help preserve suitable climates for permafrost peatlands in northern parts of Western Siberia, a landscape that contains 13.9 billion tonnes of peat carbon.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, emphasizes the significance of socioeconomic policies aimed at reducing emissions and mitigating climate change, as well as their role in determining the rate and extent of permafrost peatland thaw.

Richard Fewster, the study's lead author, is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Leeds' School of Geography. He stated: "We looked at a variety of future emission scenarios. This ranged from a strong climate-change mitigation scenario, in which large-scale efforts to reduce emissions across sectors were made, to no-mitigation scenarios and worst-case scenarios.

"Our modelling indicates that these vulnerable ecosystems are on the verge of collapse and that even moderate mitigation will result in widespread loss of suitable climates for peat permafrost by the end of the century.”

"But that doesn't mean we should give up." Strong climate-change mitigation policies could limit and even reverse the rate and extent to which suitable climate is lost."

"Huge stocks of peat carbon have been protected for millennia by frozen conditions," said study co-author Dr Paul Morris, Associate Professor of Biogeoscience at Leeds. "However, once those conditions become unsuitable, all that stored carbon can be lost very quickly."

"The magnitude of twenty-first-century climate change is likely to outweigh any protection that peat soils' insulating properties could provide."

The large amounts of carbon stored in peatland permafrost soils are particularly threatened by the rapid climate change of the twenty-first century. When permafrost thaws, organic matter begins to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, raising global temperatures and potentially hastening global climate change.

"Peatland permafrost responds differently to changing climates than mineral-soil permafrost due to the insulating properties of organic soils," said study co-author Dr. Ruza Ivanovic, Associate Professor in Climatology at Leeds. "However, peatlands remain poorly represented in Earth system models."

"When considering the impact of climate change on the planet, it is critical that these ecosystems are understood and accounted for."

"More work is needed to further understand these fragile ecosystems," said study co-author Dr Chris Smith of the School of Earth and Environment. In regions where observation data is scarce, remote sensing and field campaigns can help improve maps of modern peat permafrost distribution." Future modelling studies would be able to make hemispheric-scale projections as a result of this."

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