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September 19 2012

How much carbon is released into the atmosphere by thawing permafrost?

One of the most worrisome unknowns about climate change is the behavior of positive feedbacks that amplify warming. The ultimate fear is that we could cross tipping points, where the warming gains a momentum of its own that would continue for a time even if human emissions were drastically reduced.

The shrinking ice and snow cover in the Arctic is one example—white, reflective areas are being replaced by dark land or water that absorbs much more radiation from the Sun. That's a positive feedback on its own but it could also trigger a separate one: the massive store of carbon in Arctic permafrost could become vulnerable as the region thaws.

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