Articles | Volume 6, issue 5
Research article
27 Sep 2012
Research article |  | 27 Sep 2012

Uncertainties in the global temperature change caused by carbon release from permafrost thawing

E. J. Burke, I. P. Hartley, and C. D. Jones

Abstract. Under climate change thawing permafrost will cause old carbon which is currently frozen and inert to become vulnerable to decomposition and release into the climate system. This paper develops a simple framework for estimating the impact of this permafrost carbon release on the global mean temperature (P-GMT). The analysis is based on simulations made with the Hadley Centre climate model (HadGEM2-ES) for a range of representative CO2 concentration pathways. Results using the high concentration pathway (RCP 8.5) suggest that by 2100 the annual methane (CH4) emission rate is 2–59 Tg CH4 yr−1 and 50–270 Pg C has been released as CO2 with an associated P-GMT of 0.08–0.36 °C (all 5th–95th percentile ranges). P-GMT is considerably lower – between 0.02 and 0.11 °C – for the low concentration pathway (RCP2.6). The uncertainty in climate model scenario causes about 50% of the spread in P-GMT by the end of the 21st century. The distribution of soil carbon, in particular how it varies with depth, contributes to about half of the remaining spread, with quality of soil carbon and decomposition processes contributing a further quarter each. These latter uncertainties could be reduced through additional observations. Over the next 20–30 yr, whilst scenario uncertainty is small, improving our knowledge of the quality of soil carbon will contribute significantly to reducing the spread in the, albeit relatively small, P-GMT.