Is permafrost the ticking time bomb of the global carbon cycle?

Find out more when you watch two new professional videos posted by Frontier Scientists/WonderVisions, featuring Jason Dobkowski (EEB MS 2013). The videos are called: “Thermokarst: Melting Permafrost at Wolverine Lake,” and “Thermokarst: Why Wolverine Lake?”

In the first video, Dobkowski, a research lab technician with Professor George Kling, collects water samples for analysis. Walking along treacherous mud flats that spread out from the melting water and ice is no easy feat. When he finds the trickling stream that looks like chocolate milk as it spreads into the bright blue Arctic lake, he has to dig a trench in order to collect enough water.  

“We’re interested in what’s happening to the lake as this giant thaw slump continues to grow,” said Dobkowski. “There’s a very huge amount of organic matter that’s just been frozen in this permafrost for thousands and thousands of years.”

Dobkowski explained that the permafrost that gets exposed to the summer sun and heat melts and slumps away. This creates a chain reaction that exposes more and more frozen material that melts away, creating a huge slump.

“What’s really remarkable about these slumps is how quickly they really do grow, in the course of this season alone, it has easily quintupled in size and dumped tons – literally tons – of material into this lake behind me. This can have a drastic effect on whatever is downstream of this material.”

He collected water samples from a clear stream inlet to the lake, not impacted by a thermokarst failure, for comparison.

“We want to understand everything that’s coming into the lake, what happens when it’s in the lake, and what happens when it leaves the lake, and how it may affect lakes downstream.” Carbon is released as the soil melts and it usually ends up in an aquatic system like a river or a lake and eventually, the Arctic Ocean.

In the second video, you’ll witness a caribou and wolverine encounter, which explains how Wolverine Lake got its nickname. The video continues with further descriptions of the Arctic research Dobkowski and his colleagues are engaged in.

“Permafrost has been often described as a ticking time bomb as part of the global carbon cycle,” Dobkowski said. “When you expose these molecules to sunlight, they become available and more readily useable by microbes. What that means is microbes can eat that carbon and respire it into C02, which is of importance because C02 is the heat-trapping gas. We are interested in understanding how much of the carbon that’s now in permafrost is going to eventually end up as C02.”

Dobkowski is the current Scientist on Call for Frontier Scientists. The video project was funded by the National Science Foundation. 

More information from Frontier Scientists/UAF