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Apr 07, 2014 05:07 PM EDT

Permafrost Thawing Accelerates Global Warming

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Permafrost thawing may accelerate global warming, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Florida State University found that permafrost thawing is releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere via plants, which could speed up warming trends.

Permafrost is soil that is frozen year round and is typically located in Polar Regions, researchers said. As the world has gotten slightly warmer, permafrost is thawing and decomposing, which is producing increased amounts of methane.

"We've known for a while now that permafrost is thawing," Suzanne Hodgkins, the lead author on the paper and a doctoral student in chemical oceanography at Florida State, said in a statement. "But what we've found is that the associated changes in plant community composition in the Polar Regions could lead to way more carbon being released into the atmosphere as methane."

Methane, like carbon dioxide, has a disproportionately large global warming potential, according to researchers.  However, Methane is 33 times more effective at warming Earth on a mass basis and a century time scale relative to carbon dioxide.

For the study, researchers traveled to Sweden multiple times to collect soil samples to examine.

Jeff Chanton, the John Widmer Winchester Professor of Oceanography at Florida State, explained that as plants break down, they are releasing carbon into the atmosphere. And if the permafrost melts entirely there would be five times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere than there is now.

"The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems," Chanton said in a statement.

The recent findings were recently published in the newest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research was funded by a three-year, $400,000 Department of Energy grant. The project was also a multicontinent effort with researchers from North America, Europe and Australia.

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