The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research have joined forces to launch an investigation into the impact that thawing frozen carbon has on the Arctic Ocean.
The Changing Arctic Ocean research programme will investigate the impact of thawing permafrost and the subsequent release of frozen carbon on the Arctic Ocean. It also aims to investigate how climate change is affecting the ocean.
The £8m (~€9m) programme has funded 12 projects to carry our research in the Arctic region to better understand and predict changes to the Arctic marine environment.
Why is the research surrounding frozen carbon so crucial?
The Arctic region holds large quantities of carbon locked away in frozen soil and ice, known as permafrost. The quantity of frozen carbon far exceeds the amount that is held in forests or in the atmosphere and so any change in the amount of carbon released is a global concern.
When permafrost in soil and ice thaws, it leads to changes in the type of organic matter that finds its way into rivers. This changes the amount and type of carbon and nutrients that flow from the major Arctic rivers into the ocean.
As part of this international project, Dr Paul Mann from Northumbria University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, UK, has been named as the lead on the €800,000 CACOON project (Changing Arctic Carbon Cycle in the Coastal Ocean Nearshore). This particular project aims to assess how these changes will impact the biology found along the coast.
Understanding carbon delivery
The Arctic Ocean is crucial for storing and cycling carbon, through the uptake of CO2 by marine plants and the export of carbon to the deep ocean.
The ocean, however, also hosts bacteria and other biological and physical processes, such as solar radiation, which can release carbon back into the atmosphere. Understanding the balance between carbon delivery and loss from the ocean is needed to improve our projections of global climate change.
Northumbria’s research team will study:
- River estuaries;
- Deltas; and
- Continental shelf environments.
They will examine how thawing permafrost is changing the type and fate of river-borne matter that flows from land to the Arctic Ocean as well as processes that can release this as a greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
Mann explained: “When people think of big carbon stores they usually consider forests or maybe atmospheric CO2, yet these pools are absolutely dwarfed by the amount of carbon in soil, most of which is frozen and therefore not contributing to the modern ‘C cycle’. But as the Earth warms up, it is defrosting.
“Arctic rivers are also delivering greater amounts of freshwater from land to the ocean due to changes in weather patterns and thawing ice on the land. This speeds up the transport of material from land to the ocean, which is hugely important as this can lead to changes in the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. This could ultimately impact upon patterns of global climate change.”
The work falls under the university’s Extreme Environments multidisciplinary research theme, which brings together groups of academics who are working to understand the impact of environmental change on the Earth’s surface, subsurface, oceans and atmosphere, as well as within the Solar System.