Permafrost in coldest Arctic areas will melt faster than thought, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases

By Tom Yulsman | March 8, 2018 6:10 pm

No, calamity is not imminent. But new findings offer worrisome insights into the ongoing transformation of the Arctic—and our planet.

Collapsed permafrost block of coastal tundra on Alaska's Arctic Coast. (Source: USGS)

Collapsed permafrost block of coastal tundra on Alaska’s Arctic Coast. (Source: USGS)

|Update March 9: I’ve added some commentary at the end of this piece on the implications of the permafrost research described here. |

The coldest reaches of the Arctic on land were once thought to be at least temporarily shielded from a major — and worrisome — effect of a warming climate: widespread melting of permafrost.

But a recent study suggests these northernmost Arctic areas are likely to thaw much sooner than expected. That’s concerning because melting permafrost releases climate-warming greenhouse gases.

Overall, the new findings, coupled with previous research, suggest that the Arctic has entered a new epoch — call it “The Great Thawing” — with implications for the entire planet.

Permafrost is permanently frozen soil, sediment, and rock, sometimes found with wedges of ice. Although it is found across 15 percent of Earth’s surface, it harbors about half of our planet’s stores of soil carbon. Scientists have long feared that a warming climate would cause substantial amounts of that carbon to be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, helping to accelerate global warming.

The new study found that if humankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, permafrost in the coldest Arctic areas will experience widespread melting during this century — not centuries hence, as previously thought. As they do, they will become a net source of additional climate-altering carbon to the atmosphere. The transition will peak in the relatively short span of 40 to 60 years.

“We keep finding more surprises,” says Nicholas Parazoo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead author of the study, which appears in The Cryosphere, a scientific journal. “And the scary word in all of this is ‘irreversible.’ Once we thaw permafrost, it becomes very difficult to refreeze.”

Permafrost zones occupy nearly a quarter of the exposed land area of the Northern Hemisphere. (Source: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal via NASA)

Permafrost zones of the Northern Hemisphere. (Source: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal via NASA)

In the study, Parazoo and his colleagues employed a sophisticated computer model that simulates what happens to carbon in permafrost as the Arctic responds to a warming climate. Carbon being liberated from melting permafrost is one those changes — but it’s not the only one.

A warming climate also tends to stimulate growth of shrubs, trees and other vegetation, as well as their spread northward into areas of tundra. This is important because growing plants take carbon out of the atmosphere, offsetting what is liberated from thawing permafrost.

Many previous studies have looked only at one side of this equation: the release of carbon. But to understand the full picture, the other side must be considered too. And that’s just what Parazoo and his colleagues did in their modeling study, paired with observations of what already is happening as a comparison check on the modeling results.

The simulations showed that widespread and essentially permanent thawing of permafrost will occur across most of the northern high latitudes by the year 2300. Of this area, about 2.4 million square miles (6.2 million sq. km) — an area about three quarters as large as the United States — is projected to become a long-term source of carbon to the atmosphere. That projection takes into account increased plant growth.

Between now and 2300, the total emitted carbon will amount to 120 billion metric tons. And most of it will come from the coldest, northernmost region.

During this century alone, that northernmost area will emit a little under 10 billion tons as the permafrost there thaws much more quickly than expected. And overall, a cumulative total of some 95 billion metric tons of carbon will be released there between now and 2300, according to the study.

Ninety-five billion tons is about a quarter of all the carbon spewed into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning since the start of the industrial revolution in 1870. Looked at another way, it’s about 10 times as much carbon as was produced by all fossil fuel burning in the year 2016.

The study showed that areas further south will take longer to become a net source of carbon, and produce less of it by 2300. That’s because warmer temperatures there are projected to cause more growth of shrubs and trees. But over the long run, this more southerly environment will catch up.

The reason: In a warming climate, wildfires become more frequent and take out many of the shrubs and trees. “Then the permafrost emissions offset the carbon uptake by this vegetation,” Parazoo says.

Animation of natural- and false-color satellite images of some of the fires burning in Siberia. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Animation of natural- and false-color satellite images of wildfires burning in Siberia in 2016. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

While not trivial, the total emissions projected to come from permafrost by 2300 don’t really compete with fossil fuel burning. But that should not be terribly comforting. “We will still have an extra source of carbon to deal with,” Parazoo says.

Given how challenging it will be to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees C, as spelled out in the Paris Agreement on climate change, every billion tons of carbon that find their way into the atmosphere will count.

As a 2015 overview article in the journal Nature put it, somewhat dryly:

Although never likely to overshadow emissions from fossil fuel, each additional ton of carbon released from the permafrost region to the atmosphere will probably incur additional costs to society.

Moreover, there’s nothing magical about the year 2300 — carbon won’t simply stop leaking from thawing permafrost soils at that point. Parazoo’s simulations show “no signs of slowing,” he and his co-authors write.

Over the long run, permafrost could add huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, with a potentially large impact on Earth’s climate.

To really appreciate this, it helps to know something about the nature of permafrost.

Let’s start with a comparison: In a relatively toasty environment, microorganisms break down dead organic mater into simpler chemical components, releasing CO2 in the process. If you’ve ever left food out on the counter for a long time you have an idea what happens.

As the microorganism go to work on the organic matter, the food spoils. And those nasty odors? They can be some of the chemical byproducts of the breakdown process. But if instead you put the food in the freezer, it’s a very different story. The organic matter is protected from microbial activity by the cold temperatures.

That’s what happens on a large scale in the high north. Over many thousands of years, the remains of plants and animals have been accumulating in the permafrost freezer, locked away from microbial decay.

As a result, an estimated 1.7 trillion tons of carbon is believed to be stored in organic matter within these permafrost deposits. In addition to comprising half of Earth’s soil carbon, that’s nearly twice as much as all the carbon in our atmosphere.

“That’s a lot of carbon, sitting there for a long time, frozen,” Parazoo says.

But global warming has opened the permafrost freezer door, allowing microorganisms an opportunity to begin breaking down that organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and methane in others.

Make no mistake about it, the high north is heating up. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the Earth overall, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. And according to Charles Miller, a co-author and colleague of Parazoo’s at NASA, permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures — as of 2013, up to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in just just 30 years.

“It’s going to thaw out because of Arctic amplification,” Parazoo says. “Permafrost is very vulnerable to climate warming. The questions are timing and magnitude.”

His study provides some broad answers to those questions. But many of the finer details still need to be worked out. Moreover, more studies are necessary to corroborate what Parazoo and his colleagues have found.

All signs point at least to this conclusion: We’re at the beginning of a great thawing that is likely to play out over centuries. As it does, the Arctic — and our planet overall — will be transformed.

There could be surprises — the great thawing could happen more rapidly, with faster emissions of carbon that could hit the climate even harder.

Also keep in mind that the Arctic has already experienced monumental shifts that are affecting local communities and native species.

As the region has warmed more rapidly than any other, sea ice has shrunk precipitously. In fact, sea ice this winter has been running at record lows, and March may well bring the lowest wintertime extent on record, following record lows for the past three years.

Contracting sea ice, and other shifts in a rapidly warming Arctic are triggering changes to Arctic ecosystems from the bottom up. Those changes are putting terrestrial Arctic species at risk, including wolverines, lemmings and snowy owls — not just polar bears.

And what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. In addition to affecting weather farther south, the region is seen by scientists as the proverbial canary in the coal mine — a warning to us that more rapid change is coming elsewhere — and not centuries from now, but much sooner.

Seen in this context, widespread melting of permafrost and release of climate-warming greenhouse gases is one aspect among many of “The Great Thawing.” And even though current research suggests it will occur on a timescale of centuries, that is no reason to delay action to rein in our emissions of greenhouse gases.

The longer we wait, the more challenging it will be to avoid the worst outcomes, and also to adapt to inevitable changes over the long run.

The research on permafrost by Parazoo and others reminds us that we will likely be living with climate change for a very long time. That reality argues for a rethinking of what we mean by “sustainable.”

“‘Sustainable’ really means that we have found a way to think about long time scales, beyond one generation,” says Antje Boetius, Director of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. She points out that politicians and business people tend to think just a few years ahead. “But when we scientists talk about the future of the Arctic region, or when the indigenous people talk about the past and future, they mean generations, centuries, and even beyond.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said an estimated 17 trillion tons of carbon is believed to be stored in organic matter within permafrost deposits. The decimal point was misplaced. The actual number is 1.7 trillion tons. The story has been corrected accordingly. |

  • Mike Richardson

    Well, this is a positive feedback loop I’ve wondered about for years, and it looks like scientists are giving us a better idea of what the impact is going to be. The only good take-away from this is that we may have a few centuries to adapt to this additional carbon input and resulting heating. Or we may not. I suppose the timescale will be refined as the phenomenon is studied in more detail, but regardless of the rate of warming, humanity needs to start preparing for the impact of hotter world before it’s too late.

    • CB

      “The only good take-away from this is that we may have a few centuries to adapt to this additional carbon input”

      …and I would suggest that might be overly optimistic… The cap on warming is the sea ice. As long as it’s there, the temperature in the surrounding land stays right around zero… but that cap is coming off, and it’s coming off in a matter of years. It would be very foolish to assume it’s not going to have an effect on permafrost…

      • Mike Richardson

        You make a good point. One more reason the sea ice is important, even if it won’t directly raise the sea level when it melts.

        • CB

          I sometimes point Climate Deniers to this video to illustrate the point. It’s a middle school experiment, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of! You can keep adding heat energy and the temperature doesn’t change… until all the ice is gone. Then, the change is quite rapid:

      • Jenny H

        CB, uh?????? Ice can be far colder than zero (C). At 0 degrees it is at melting point.

        • CB

          “Ice can be far colder than zero (C). At 0 degrees it is at melting point.”

          Yes! That’s absolutely true. The process of melting ice absorbs a massive amount of energy though, called the “heat of fusion”. Because this energy is absorbed in changing the state from solid to liquid, the surrounding water stays at precisely zero until the ice is all gone… and then the temperature shoots up quickly.

          You have a constant inflow of warm water from points south chewing at the Northern sea ice cap. For now, that’s resulting in a sea that’s the same temperature, but once the ice is gone, the water temperature is going to spike. It’ll go into the air, it’ll cause rain over Greenland and the Canadian and Russian tundra.

          It will likely drive all of the megafauna that lives in the Arctic sea into extinction.

          It’s a configuration the human species has never known before, and it’s set to happen in just a few more years.

    • Jenny H

      Humans would do better to try to reduce their impact on the environment rather than ‘prepare ‘ for it. LESS people! Fat less people! We’ve already over populated out environments

  • OWilson

    As an optimist, I always look for a little good news in the catastophic AGW scenarios predicted by our unimpeachable scientists.

    It gives me a little comfort to know that we have passed the “Tipping Points”, and the “Only 5 years to save the planet” pronouncements of our erstwhile politicians.

    The timeline for doomsday is extended, yet again, to give us more time to deal with the problem of AGW, and that’s a good thing!

    We have come a long way since,:

    “The ice at 90 degrees north may well have melted away by next summer. I’d say it’s even-odds whether the North Pole melts out”. said Dr Serreze, NSIDC, June 2008

    “All indications are that sea ice will continue to decline over the next several decades,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. “We are still looking at a seasonally ice-free Arctic in twenty to thirty years.” October 2010

    “Computer modeling of the climate system suggests that unless we significantly rein in CO2 emissions soon, Arctic waters could be sea-ice free during summer by about mid-century. Sea ice would still form in winter. But the models also predict that continuing warming would lead to ice-free Arctic waters in winter between 2061 and 2088”. Imagio, February 2018

    “But assuming things unfold as current research suggests, a timescale of centuries (by the year 2300) means there is time to respond and adapt to the changes that have already begun” Imageo, March 2018

    So at least, we have a little more time to add AGW, to the challenges humans and Mother Nature herself keeps throwing our way, including, wars, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, government corruption and cullusion, floods, droughts, volcanism, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, tsunamis, and of course deadly diseases.

    As an optimist, I am also heartened by the words of Ms Boetius, above, ““But when we scientists talk about the future of the Arctic region, or when the indigenous people talk about the past and future, they mean generations, centuries, and even beyond.”

    Wiki describes her interests as: :”La bonne cuisine, le bon vin, la bonne compagnie, la bonne musique, la mode et la vie citadine” ((in French) “Good food, good wine, good company, good music, fashion and city life”).[7]

    I’m not quite sure how that fits with her Indigenus Peoples reference! :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you for your comments — they’ve prompted me to revise my story with extra commentary at the end. Given everything that is already happening in the Arctic and elsewhere, I never imagined that someone would use the multi-century nature of permafrost changes and climate change generally to be so naively optimistic, and to imply that no action is necessary.

      • OWilson

        With NOAA’s 40 year satellite record showing an anomaly of only 0.20 degrees above the mean, I am concerned with the “action” that is proposed to be taken.

        If you discount any human error or scientific margin of error, that adds up to about half a degree by 2100.

        So, higher taxes on home and industrial and commercial energy use to go to Big Government!

        $billions in Third World “reparations” to tin pot genocidal dictators as demanded by the U.N.

        Putting the U.S.Manufacturing Industry at a huge disadvantage compared to other polluting countries that only “promise” to cut back by 2035 :)

        And of course the political solution proposed by your latest Presidential Candidate, and some 22 State Attorneys, namely, “Bringing all Climate Deniers to Justice”!

        That sounds exactly like something Stalin or Kim Il Un would propose!

        It does have an appeal to the totalitarian loving Left though, I must admit! :)


        • Mike Richardson

          Actually, NOAA indicates more than a 0.20 degree temperature rise, based on consideration of all data they have gathered, and not just the satellites. Here’s what they actually have to say:

          You’d be more credible if you didn’t use cherry-picked data from satellite measurements, which as the RSS study indicated, were not properly accounting for diurnal drift. I’ve helpfully included a link to that, too, for anyone interested.

          You’re welcome. :)

          • Tom Yulsman

            Why do we keep engaging with Mr. OWilson? He clearly doesn’t give a damn about anything that we or anyone else has to say. I often wonder whether I should establish a strict policy of science-based comments only. One reason I have not done that is that policing it would be a full time job! So I let them use my blog as a platform for absurdities, hubris, political ranting, and outright denial of reality. (Sometimes worse, like the guy who once said I should be put up against a wall and shot. That one I took down…) This sometimes gets me discouraged.

          • Mike Richardson

            I engage him mainly because his points are pretty easy to refute, and his responses quickly become insulting, political, and personal (unfortunately I admit I sometimes don’t exercise as much restraint in my responses as I would like), making it clear that he’s not terribly reasonable. And he’s frequently humorous, though it took me a while to realize that this is usually unintentional, and not deliberate parody in the nature of Stephen Colbert. But when he and other like-minded folks present misinformation, it often presents the opportunity for going into more detail as you present counterpoints on relevant topics, adding to the value of the blog posts, as you’ve shown with nik. At the end of the day, it’s your blog and your rules, so do what you think is right. I just appreciate the chance I’ve had to participate in these discussions.

          • OWilson

            Stephen Colbert?

            Glad to see you’ve at least graduated from Beavis and Butthead quotes!

          • Mike Richardson

            I was only trying to respond to one of your dismissals of the value of scientific research with something on the appropriate intellectual and maturity level. :)

          • OWilson

            See above re “dismissals” of scientific technology.

            Your welcome! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            The problem is, you don’t really understand that technology or its limits, and instead fetishize it. The only thing being dismissed here is you.

          • OWilson

            You’d also have to stop referencing Trump and the GOP in many of your partisan articles :)

            That will be difficult to do because the proposed “solutions” to AGW involve investing lots of taxpayer money we just do not have, and even throwing climate “deniers: in jail!

            Who are the real extremists here? :)

          • OWilson

            You need to get your AGW talking points up to date, Mikey!

            Here’s what the even your global warming advocates at the World Meteorological Institute are reporting:

            November, 1017 – WMI

            “The United States (NOAA)has launched the first of its new generation of highly advanced polar-orbiting meteorological satellites. Known as JPSS-1 (for Joint Polar Satellite System).

            (NOAA’s)JPSS-1 will circle the globe just over 14 times per day in a polar orbit. It will do so in a fixed plane in space while the earth is rotating beneath it, and its sensors will thus “see” almost every point on Earth twice per day. This will enable the satellite to provide a treasure trove of information, especially about atmospheric temperatures, humidity fields and the nature and distribution of clouds.

            “We in WMO often hold up NOAA’s satellite systems as a model to follow. Free and open access to observational data is what will ultimately let us do the best we can in terms of saving lives, minimizing property damage and helping all nations prosper from improved weather and climate services,” said Lars Peter Riishojgaard, TITLE at WMO.”

            Now you can put your head in the sand and ignore the latest science and technology from The World Metoeorological Organization, and NOAA, (both AGW advocates, by the way) but that’s not my problem!

            Take your complaints to them, and get back to us, ya hear?


          • Mike Richardson

            Please link to a peer-reviewed journal article or credible rebuttal from a researcher in the field who disagrees with the findings of the RSS paper. Also, I’d like a good explanation for why NOAA, in the link I provided, disagrees with what you said regarding the rate of temperature increase (they use all the data you cite, and then some), and why your pronouncements should carry more weight. Just linking to an article describing the marvels satellite technology doesn’t cut it, particularly since you are disputing the work of researchers who process satellite data for a living. If you can’t do that, then it’s pretty clear that you are the one simply regurgitating talking points, not I. :)

          • OWilson

            Here ya go!


            NOAAs entire satellite record from 1979

            Take your luddite denials to them.

            And my post did NOT link to “just an article describing the marvels satellite technology”

            That is an outright lie!

            I posted an Official Statement of The World Meteorological Organization (an AGW supporting body of the United Nations), describing in detail how NOAAs satellite technology is indispensible in proving “a treasure trove” of information on whole Earth processes!

            In case you missed it, here it is again (sorry to our brighter readers and the MOD, but I will not let outright lies stand)

            ““We in WMO often hold up NOAA’s satellite systems as a model to follow. Free and open access to observational data is what will ultimately let us do the best we can in terms of saving lives, minimizing property damage and helping all nations prosper from improved weather and climate services,” said Lars Peter Riishojgaard, TITLE at WMO.”

          • Mike Richardson

            Nope, you provided neither of the things I requested to refute the RSS study, or to explain why NOAA ‘s own webpage disagreed with your interpretation. You simply repeated your “talking points” and provided a graph from the satellite data in question (a little bit better than nik, but not much). And my referring to that statement as an article is not a lie — it is not a research paper, or other primary source of scientific evidence. Someone’s getting awfully testy, maybe even a bit “snow-flakey.” You really don’t react well to being proven wrong, you know. ; )

          • OWilson

            Your shtick is getting to be as old as your sources,

            You can’t use old scientific data to contradict newer scientific data from the same source. :)

            Your “trick” does not work!

            But I will give you the last word, as I have no more time to waste with you! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Funny, but in college my professors neglected to tell me that providing information from primary sources was a trick. Rather, it was considered the best way to support a thesis. But I do apologize for “tricking” you with inconsiderate techniques , and I suppose I should apologize in advance for all the times I’m going to do it in the future. Your method of producing the same cherry-picked data, ignoring potential problems with that data, and then name-calling folks who point it out, however, certainly doesn’t seem like a better alternative. By the way, I note that you never did provide any actual research contradicting the RSS paper, or explaining why NOAA (as of September 2017 — not really “old” data) provided a higher estimate of the rate of temperature rise than you. But then again, I never really expected you would.

          • OWilson

            I don’t post rates of temperature rise.

            I post the monthly chart of NOAA’s up to date up to date satellite observations.

            I Like to see you deny their usefulness in providing a “treasure trove of information, especially about atmospheric temperatures” – World Meteorological Organization, United Nations, November 2017

            (The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is an intergovernmental organization with a membership of 191 Member States and Territories. It originated from the International Meteorological Organization (IMO), which was founded in 1873. Established by the ratification of the WMO Convention on 23 March 1950, WMO became the specialised agency of the United Nations for meteorology (weather and climate), operational hydrology and related geophysical sciences a year later. Its current Secretary-General is Petteri Taalas[1] and the President of the World Meteorological Congress, its supreme body, is David Grimes.[2] The Organization is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland)

            But I made my point, had my laughs, so you’ll have to find someone else who will talk to you! Maybe NOAA or the U.N. will take you seriously! Go tell them hw mistaken they are!

            Lol :)

            This is just too silly to continue!

            Bye, Mikey!

          • Mike Richardson

            Goodbye. 😉

        • Tom Yulsman

          I mostly write about science, not politics. So I’ll leave the latter to you. I don’t pretend to know what our best options are — other than we do need to find ways of supporting the already ongoing transition to renewable sources of energy. I also know this: Denial of reality as you do with cherry picked data, thick overlays of political ranting, and a shape-shifting, mercurial approach to discussion that accomplishes nothing other than making you feel good, is not an option.

    • Gustavo Molina

      Yeah. You’re really smart. There is nothing unusual in the Arctic being above freezing temperature in the middle of the winter (when there is no sun). Yup. You’re a genious.

      • OWilson

        So’s yer old man! :)

  • nik

    As CO2 has had no noticeable effect on climate in 600 million years, until 15- 20 years ago, when carbon tax was invented, any alleged climatic effects can be ignored.
    The increase in atmospheric CO2 will be entirely beneficial, for all life on Earth. This increase will encourage plant growth, worldwide, and may help offset the detrimental effects of human deforestation. in addition, all animal life can look forward to a more plentiful food supply.
    In fact if the tundra becomes warm enough, it could be a new source of crops for human consumption, so removing any feared future shortages.
    In this case, farmers should be buying land at the current minimal cost, to prepare for a highly profitable future.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Nik: You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts — at least not here on my blog. Your comment about CO2 having “no noticeable affect on climate in 600 million years” is laughably absurd, as well as inimical to the mission of Discover — a magazine dedicated to what science is telling us about nature in all it’s glory. Also know that most readers here are uninterested in your fantasies, except to the extent that it may make some of them laugh.

      I don’t know what prompts you to make such an absurd statement. Perhaps it is because your political views have caused you to eagerly fall for debunked ideas about the late Ordovician glaciation, which is said to have occurred despite high CO2 440 million years ago? If so, you could read this: Not that it is likely to change the way you think. I’m fairly certain it will have no effect.

      Lastly, if you are tempted to respond with alleged “evidence” for your cockamamie arguments about CO2, please don’t bother. Most of us here are not interested in debating someone who denies both basic physics and an exceedingly large body of research dating back decades. If you want to debate politics, which is what your claims spring from, do it somewhere else.

      • nik

        Tom, thank you for your response.

        I have NO political reasons for my comments, they are based entirely on verifiable climate facts. Nor, as a degree qualified engineer, do I ignore basic physics, of which I am well very informed. However, I have over the years, learned to recognise bullsh!t, and CO2 caused ”Global Warming” is unadulterated bullsh!t!

        My evidence for my comment, is climate history over 600 million years, during which time, when CO2 increased, global temperature decreased, for several million years, and when CO2 decreased, global temperature increased, also for several millions of years.
        Quote, ”If the observed facts do not fit the theory, then the theory is WRONG!”
        Richard Feynman, Nobel Physicist.

        Therefore if the observed facts, over several millions of years, do not fit the theory that CO2 increase causes global warming, then that theory is wrong! Simple.

        In addition, your, ”….exceedingly large body of research dating back decades.” of carbon tax propaganda, has little or no significance when compared to 600 MILLION years of climate history.

        In addition, the present level of atmospheric CO2 during this inter ice age, is the LOWEST it has been for 270 million years, since the end of the Permian extinction. So ALL the hysteria about ”global warming,” and ”runaway greenhouse” is utter garbage.

        Atmospheric CO2 FOLLOWS global atmospheric warming, it does not cause it, and never has. THAT is basic physics.
        in addition, at its present level of 0,04%, there is insufficient to have any noticeable effect, whatever that might be.

        In addition, as the Earth has been in a galactic Ice age, which commenced something like 30 million years ago, and is still proceeding, so it has been getting steadily colder during that period.

        I am unable to give you a link to the evidence, as links are automatically removed from this site, and as you say you are not even interested in evidence, as your mind is closed, I wont waste my time or yours.

        Please continue to revel in your ignorance, if you wish.

        However, if you can take your head out of the depths of carbon tax propaganda, and look at the evidence, I would be happy to provide it.

        Finally, my evidence has nothing to do with the Ordovician glaciation, so the skepticalscience link is irrelevant.

        Have a nice day.

        • Tom Yulsman

          You are truly delusional.

          • nik

            Is that your best ”scientific” response?
            Lets see if you have the intelligence to read a graph, above, and understand it?
            Look at it and tell me what you see, and can deduce from it.
            However, it may destroy your naive delusions if you do.

          • Tom Yulsman

            You are deluded by hubris — the idea that by reading one graph of suspect origin you know better than an entire scientific community consisting of literally thousands of researchers, operating over many decades and doing the actual hard work of science — and holding up their findings to rigorous review by expert peers. The idea that your politically-motivated impressions (politically motivated as evidenced by your repeated references to a carbon tax) are superior to the work of so many true scientists over such a long period of time truly is delusional.

            But okay, let’s address your alleged evidence. It comes from someone named Monte Hieb, whoever he is. As Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes in a review of efforts to graph CO2 and climate through geologic history (see:, Hieb has hand drawn his temperature record based on the work of a scientist named Chris Scotese. As Schmidt puts it:

            “Scotese is an expert in reconstructions of continental positions through time and in creating his ‘temperature reconstruction’ he is basically following an old-fashioned idea (best exemplified by Frakes et al’s 1992 textbook) that the planet has two long-term stable equilibria (‘warm’ or ‘cool’) which it has oscillated between over geologic history. This kind of heuristic reconstruction comes from the qualitative geological record which gives indications of glaciations and hothouses, but is not really adequate for quantitative reconstructions of global mean temperatures. Over the last few decades, much better geochemical proxy compilations with better dating have appeared . . . and the idea that there are only two long-term climate states has long fallen by the wayside.”

            In other words, your alleged “evidence” is a graph, in part hand-drawn, posted to a website that hasn’t been updated in six years by an obscure person with no discernible expertise in this area, and based on the work of a scientist who is not an expert in paleo temperature reconstructions and whose ideas were long ago supplanted by better work based on actual physical proxy records.

            Here’s an example of real researchers doing the truly complex and hard work of science: In the paper, a team of five scientists analyze a wealth of different data to examine the role of CO2 in climate over the past 540 million years. The conclusions are complex and nuanced — which is to be expected for a system as complex as global climate, and especially when looking at it over such long time periods. You might have a look at it, as well as Gavin Schmidt’s article. If you have the least bit of humility, this might open your mind to possibilities that you haven’t allowed yourself to consider.

            Also consider that reams of peer-reviewed scientific evidence show that since the industrial revolution, the rise in global average temperature has been driven primarily by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Here are just a few sources to consider:




            Prior to our influence on the climate, natural drivers alone obviously determined Earth’s climate — and greenhouse gases are one of several. It has long been understood that over the timescale of glacials and interglacials, changes in solar radiation reaching Earth due to variations in the Earth’s eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession (Milankovitch cycles) get things going toward warmer or cooler conditions. Then other natural feedbacks kick in.

            For example, as the Earth starts to warm due to increased solar radiation reaching Earth, ice and snow contract. These surfaces are very shiny, so as they shrink, less sunlight is reflected back into space, helping to enhance the warming. As ocean waters warm, they give up CO2 (because CO2 is less soluble in warmer water). This enhances the warming, which reduces the ice and snow, which causes more warming, which increases the CO2, leading to even more warming.

            In other words, Earth’s climate is complex. And climate scientists have never contended that CO2 is the sole driver of changes over geologic history. It plays an absolutely key role — without CO2, Earth would likely be a proverbial snowball. But there are other drivers too.

            That said, basic physics as well as decades of observations show conclusively that the main driver of the warming since the industrial revolution has been us.

            Since you’ve shown yourself to be capable of being seriously deluded by your own hubris, I have few doubts that real science will ever influence your views. But you never know.

          • nik

            Tom, thank you for your comprehensive response.
            I am fully aware of 100k year Malenkovitch cycles, thank you, and the fact that ice and snow reflect sunlight, which is pretty basic stuff. I also understand that as the climate warms the oceans, that they release dissolved CO2, which is why the atmospheric levels of CO2 and global temperature changes tend to coincide. This demonstrates that warming causes the increase of CO2, not the reverse as is being claimed.

            It is sunlight that warms the Earth, not CO2.

            Therefore, your adherence to the myth of CO2 causing global warming is still rubbish, and didnt exist until carbon tax was invented! You have your own hubris on that point.

            The main ”greenhouse gas” on Earth is water vapour, 60% on average, not the 0.04% CO2, which is infinitesimal.

            While you may try to rubbish the graph I’ve shown, the key points, like the Permian extinction, and others, are inarguable.
            As to ”hand drawn” graphs, most graphs are hand drawn initially, and have been for centuries, and were perfectly effective in demonstrating the data throughout that time, so those comments are irrelevant.

            I also notice that you have not attempted to explain the relatively rapid decreases, and increases in global temperatures at 150 million year intervals. Perhaps you’d like to address that? If not, I would be happy to explain it for you.

            The graph still shows that the more recent, and therefore more representative present global temperature, and CO2 level is the lowest since the Permian extinction. Which considering the Earth is in a ‘galactic’ ice age, is not surprising. Geological data shows that 30 million years ago, there was no ice at the poles, arctic, or antarctic, which tends to support the data shown by the graph.

            As governments are behind the carbon tax scam, and governments control the funding to government sites, no ”.gov” site can be considered impartial, so I ignore them.

            Governments are formed from politicians, and it is well known, that politicians are notorious liars, so governments are also bound to be liars, especially when there are $$trillions of carbon tax involved.

            As for peer reviewed papers, often mentioned by carbon tax trolls, they are just one group of guys patting each other on the back when one of them produces data that agrees with their own, it doesn’t make it right!

            I’m sure there were many peer reviewed papers in the past, that agreed that the sun orbited the Earth, until Galileo came along, and proved them wrong.

            The alleged increase in CO2, from 280 ppm to present 400 ppm is also contested by other scientists, who suggest that ice core records give inaccurate readings, and that analysis of plant stomata is more accurate, and gives a figure closer to 350 ppm before the industrial revolution. So the alleged increase due to human activity reduces to 0.005%, which can have no noticeable effect on climate.

            There are also more relevant and likely causes of global climate warming than the alleged effect of CO2.

            Try this;
            When the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice age, they left vast areas of ground up rock dust, which is an excellent all round natural fertiliser. During the 10-15,000 years of an inter ice age, these nutrients get washed down through the soil out of the reach of tree roots.
            Trees cool the climate, one mature tree can transpire 150,000 litres of water per year, multiply that by trillions of trees, and you have a substantial cooling effect. The water vapour they produce, also has a significant effect on weather patterns. Remove some trees and the local climate heats up, remove all of them, and it often results in scorching hot desert, like the Sahara. Records, and data from many sources show that historically, large areas of the Sahara were fully habitable, unlike present.

            Towards the end of an inter ice age, the trees start to weaken, due to lack of nutrients. This makes them vulnerable to disease, and also reduces their transpiration, worldwide, so world wide the climate will start to warm. Add human deforestation to that, over vast areas, as is happening world wide, and this will accelerate. The weakness of trees, and their drying also makes them vulnerable to forest fires. The fire deforested areas also cause climate heating. Noticed any reports of large forest fires, worldwide, lately?

            I will read the link, ”geosociety” thank you, and comment on it, but not now, as its 2am, and I’m off to bed.

          • Tom Yulsman

            Here is the last thing I will have to say to you on research demonstrating conclusively CO2’s key role as a climatic thermostat:

            Please do not post another long response. I’ve already given you a platform for politically-motivated pseudoscience, despite Discover’s mission as a science magazine. We are now done with this discussion.

          • nik

            Thank you.
            I have read the article you suggested,
            and what it says, in simplest terms, is that when the climate is warm the CO2 increases, and when it is cold, it decreases, which is well accepted, by me, because warm oceans release more CO2.

            Please be assured that I have absolutely NO political motivations whatsoever. Nothing I have posted is ”pseudo science,” I am just as interested in real science as yourself, and always have been.

            When this claim that CO2 causes ”global warming” was first made, there were a number of scientist that objected very strongly including a university professor. He was sacked, blackballed, and had his character assassinated by the press.

            There are still many reputable scientists some of whom have resigned from their jobs, because they disagree with the premise that CO2 affects global climate.

            You will no doubt have noticed that some of the coldest temperatures ever, since records began, occurred recently, world wide. As, ”Global Warming” somehow didnt happen as predicted, as it was a political scam, the name had to be rapidly modified, to ”climate change” which is ambiguous in the extreme.

            This whole debacle first started when I was in University, in the 70’s, with Maggie Thatcher, when she supplied £4 million to a university, and asked for a reason to close coal pits. It has snowballed from that.

            Many scientists at the time refuted the claim very strongly, and those that are not dependent on government funding, have continued to do so.

            However, the whole debacle has taken on a life of its own, and become a new pseudoscience/religion.

            Perhaps, rather than accusing me of posting ”political pseudo science” you should do some historical research, and just maybe enlightenment would result.

            Thank you for your patience.

          • nik
          • cgs

            Can you point me to the original source of this graph?

          • nik
          • cgs

            OK, thanks, although that is not the direct link. This is:


            So you have written above that you are a “degree qualified engineer”, though I admit some confusion as to exactly what that means.

            I do take it though that you are technically trained. In being technically trained, I assume you have learned, and you have knowledge, about sourcing good technical information.

            So I have a question: Why do you believe the graph above is a well-sourced piece of technical information?

          • nik

            The general information contained is confirmed both by geological, and astronomical research. Two fairly separate sources.

          • cgs

            OK, my first point here is that this is a composite graph. In other words, each data plot comes from different sources.

            The graph of CO2 over the Phanerozoic is indeed well-sourced. It is based upon work by DL Royer, though it comes from work of his published in 2004. An updated graph can be found here (from 2014, figure 2), though the overall shape is generally the same. There may even be a more recent one that I am not aware of:


            But detailed information on how this graph was constructed can be found in the published literature. Such detailed information allows it to be critiqued and debated.

            My understanding is that the temperature data, however, is not well-sourced. Is there a paper in the literature where the temperature graph is originally published? My understanding is no.

          • nik

            I doubt that my source was original, as this graph has been used on a number of sites, and my source was just one of them.

            Looking at the graph, I would conclude that only the last 50 million years of temperature has much detail. I would imagine that detailed data would be very difficult to obtain, the further back in geological history one searches, as the fossil record becomes more and more compressed and indistinct.

            The remainder, between the very distinct extinction periods, is probably smoothed out generalisations.

            My original source was here;

          • cgs

            So I think we both agree that the temperature data cannot be traced to any source in the published literature. Thus we cannot really critique it.

            In that case, one should be hesitant to use it in any argument.

            I agree that the further back in time one goes, the sparser the data. This is well documented in the Royer papers, where the step size for Phanerozoic is 10 million years.

            So if we do restrict ourselves to the last 50 million years or so, we can appeal to graphs where both temperature and CO2 proxy data are sourced to the same paper:


          • nik

            The Permian extinction, and the other extreme temperature drops, are well researched, and documented.
            In addition, recent data from Antarctica, has shown that 100 m.y. ago it was free of ice, and had forests, so temperatures for the period are known.

            Also, the work by C R Scotese, who provided the temperature data cannot just be dismissed as irrelevant.

            So even though the actual points to draw the graph may be sparse, they are still pertinent, and the previous 500 million years cannot be dismissed as if it is unknown.

            Therefore restricting everything to the last 50 m.y. would be totally unrepresentative of the last 600 m.y. That would be like restricting the weather history for the USA to one afternoon on a summer day, which is ridiculous!

          • cgs

            The point I have been trying to make is that the graph you presented, which has a long history and is shown quite frequently, is a bad graph. If we have no way to trace how the temperature part of the graph was constructed, then its representation as a measurement or calculation is unknown. So, in my opinion, Scotese’s work is in limbo: neither relevant nor irrelevant.

            My point is certainly not to dismiss what information we do have on the past 500-600 million years. There is plenty of published work that address’ this time period. Scotese’s is just not part of it. Royer, though, has published much.

            [And the point of linking to the Cenozoic paper was to agree with your last comment that there is indeed more data in that period to make the kind of graph that the one you posted was aiming for.]

            Finally, I would just like to say that while paleoclimate data is very interesting and important in its own right, it does not tell us whether CO2 is a climate driver or not – which I think was your ultimate point in showing the graph. Physics is the determiner of that. Paleoclimate data does though have the potential to tell us how strong of a driver it is.

          • nik

            Surely, the strength of CO2 as a modifier of climate must depend upon its quantity, and at its present level of 0.04% there is insufficient to have any significant effect.

            The climate during the Permian extinction, has been researched very thoroughly, as it is of significant interest. As those levels of CO2 and Temperature are very similar to present, it can be said that our present levels are almost certainly the lowest since then.

            The reason for the four relatively precipitous drops in temperature during the last 600 million years, is galactic, which is why I refer to the present situation as a ”Galactic Ice Age.” (GIA)
            Malenkovitch cycles are superimposed upon this, and are trivial by comparison.
            This GIA started about 30 m.y. ago, when the Antarctic had forests, which have since disappeared, but their remains have recently been found under the present icecap.

            It is generally accepted, regardless of religions, that the Earth orbits the sun, but the sun also orbits the centre of the galaxy. The period of this orbit is in the region of 600 m.y. during that time, the solar system passes through the arms of the galaxy, which contain large amounts of interstellar dust. When it does, the interstellar dust attenuates the solar energy reaching Earth, and precipitates a GIA. There are also other phenomena, caused by gravitational effects, like increased occurrence of earthquakes, and increased volcanic activity. The increase in volcanic activity releases aerosols into the atmosphere, which also block sunlight, and cause additional cooling of the atmosphere.

            700 million years ago the Earth entered at period during which it became totally covered by snow and Ice, referred to as ”Snowball Earth” This state lasted for some 100 million years, until the solar system exited the arm of the galaxy. Following that, the solar radiation reaching the Earth would have increased to normal, and the gravitational effects causing earthquakes and volcanic action, would be removed.

            However, after that event, virtually all life on Earth had died, except bacteria, and algae, that could survive in or under the ice.

            This GIA, will probably be a repeat of that event, but as this will probably take a few million years to become fully effective, and as human existence, at present, has only been detected for about 300,000 years, there will be more than adequate time for humans to develop star travel, and find another suitable home, we hope!

          • cgs

            Thank you for your reply.

            Many folks find it strange that a gas that makes up only 0.04% of the atmosphere can be attributed the power to “control” the climate. It is a natural skeptic position to take.

            I will not try to argue you from this position myself. I will only point you to the following link.


            If you are not familiar with this blog, the About page gives a good description (and it’s all good stuff):


            This will be my last comment. Thanks again for the discussion.

  • JohnnyMorales

    The only reason why global warming is considered bad is because it’s result of Mankind’s activities.

    A philosophy is overriding in the scientific community and that is when man alters the natural way it is wrong it is always wrong and bad things happen to put it simply.

    The truth is global warming is a good thing 40% of the land on this planet is basically Barren Tundra and Arctic land has far fewer living things on it then temperate or tropical zones excluding bacteria of course which are numerous everywhere.

    While the rising sea levels will naturally reduce the overall amount of land global warming will open up so much more land to live on and make it livable that humans as well as Wildlife will be well compensated.

    Instead of seeing it as something horrible and directing all our efforts to trying to Futily stop it we should be trying to manage it.

    No matter how fast it is happening it is still happening over a human lifetime or several of them giving humans more than enough time to adapt and help animals to adapt to.

    And while a few species like the polar bear might be hard-pressed to survive, it’s not like the polar bear is so unique that nothing else in the world is like it. They are still similar enough to the grizzly bear for example to breed and create fertile hybrids.

    Of course I can hear all the gas now shock that anybody would say something so heretical.

    Really though the fears that many researchers first voiced when the reality of global warning could no longer be denied was the belief that the Earth would warm so fast it would turn into Venus. Now that’s pretty much impossible.

    • OWilson

      Man thrives in the Arctic, and in the Amazon, and everywhere in between. So do animals!

      We easily survive a 100 degree temperature change every year, and a 40 degree change in a single day!

      0.20 degrees over the next 50 years?

      Gimmee a break! Lol

    • Mike Richardson

      Much of the barren tundra will not be suitable for agriculture based on the soil type and depth, and areas above ( or below, for the Southern Hemisphere) a certain latitude are limited in agricultural productivity by the amount of sunlight they receive. I don’t see those newl-warmed areas of the globe making up for tropical, subtropical, and temperate growing regions adversely impacted by global warming. Likewise, humans tend to build most cities near the coast or rivers for ease of transportation and a variety of other factors. Rising sea levels will result in mass migration from many of these areas, and produce enormous expenses to save those cities deemed too important to abandon. The problems caused by climate change, regardless of what causes it, seem destined to outweigh any potential benefits.

      • OWilson

        I have told you before that the World’s Major Waterfront Cities are actual growing their urban land, NOT shrinking! We have satellite technology and photographic evidence.

        Your poster child Tuvalu is growing in size, NOT shrinking. We have satellite technology and photographic evidence.

        Your constant luddite denial of NOAAs satellite technology for monitoring whole Earth processes is legendary!

        You are not “mass migrating” from a low lying coastal area, in South East Louisiana, under repeated government flood warnings 2012 and 2016,

        Matter of fact, you DID get flooded out from there, so you told us!

        Blamed global warming!

        The promptly re-built, on the SAME spot.

        Mikey, government Swamp logic on daily display!

        A new memorable gem, almost every day!

        The gift to conservatism that keeps on giving!

        Thank you!


        • Mike Richardson

          And here are the personal attacks and insults, just as expected. Thank you for being so predictably immature.

          • OWilson

            As long as you keep calling me a liar without offering a direct quote in context, I will continue to feed you back your own contradictions in your own words!

            If that is insulting to you, Mikey, just take a deep breadth and think about it for moment!


          • Mike Richardson

            A “deep breadth?” LOL!

            So your poor restraint and juvenile behavior is someone else’s fault, but not your own? So much for the notion that conservatives practice the personal responsibility they preach.

            Well, one example of your lying from this page alone would be:

            ” But I will give you the last word… ” — didn’t take you long to make that a lie.

            In other posts, you’ve misrepresented my words, referred to climate change as the “global warming hoax,” and stated that my “more militant compatriots ” hacked your online account without providing evidence that any political motivation was behind it.

            You are a fundamentally dishonest, hypocritical, and irrational person. That’s no insult — simply an observation of fact, like noting that liquid water is wet, or fire is hot. You may have the last word here, and I actually mean that.

          • OWilson

            Thank you!

            Coming from you, I take it as a compliment!

            And I will not game the this latest last word deal, like you do so often, by asking you a leading question!

            Which ALWAYS abrogates the privelege! Lol!

    • Peter Olins

      “…global warming will open up so much more land to live on and make it livable…”

      Do you really think that Canada and Russia are going to open their borders to the hundreds of millions of people from Africa and Asia displaced by climate change (even if they wanted to move)?

  • Jenny H

    Permafrost is, after all, nothing more than frozen swamps and wet lands. Swamps and wetlands are important biomes in tropical and temperate areas, so I see no need to panic.

  • Daniela

    The emission of carbon dioxide and methane from permafoto water will notably affect the populations of the earth, due to the fact that it is an irreversible process, therefore, greater climate change will be generated that the production of CO2 increases remarkably the temperatures of the waters, which impedes that the marine species must submerge to find the right temperature to survive, also the seafarers become acidified and make it impossible for the presence of wolverines, polar bears, rival owls and other species that inhabit the polar areas.
    When our politicians understand the consequences of climate change and global warming, it is too late to be a process in which man can not do anything about it; But if you can raise awareness from today, you can avoid carbon dioxide emissions and thus reduce high temperatures, production from the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

    • OWilson

      Let’s all hold our breath for 1 hour next Earth Day!

      That should help! :)

    • Damn Nitpicker

      The Arctic has melting permafrost right now, correct? Thus, we should see this methane problem in the Arctic now, correct?



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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