/ Modified may 7, 2014 9:13 a.m.

Permafrost Soils Could Contribute to Global Warming, Scientist Says

Recently discovered by team of researchers; have been frozen for tens of thousands of years, but are beginning to thaw, producing methane - a powerful greenhouse gas.

An international team of scientists has discovered a new microbe in melting permafrost soils, which according to a member of that research team, could contribute to global climate change.

Virginia Rich, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, said permafrost is composed of soils that have been continuously frozen for up to tens of thousands of years, trapping between one-half and one-third of the world's soil-carbon in a frozen form.

Permafrost soils, however, are starting to thaw. For instance, the southern edge of the permafrost zone in places like Sweden, Canada and Alaska is moving northward.

"It is like a lot of food has been in the freezer and now the freezer is failing," Rich said. As these soils - once frozen year round - thaw, all of the carbon that has been locked into them is released.

"You can really think of it like a feast for the microorganisms that are living there," including for the microbe discovered by the research team working in Sweden.

Not only is this microbe thriving in the soil-based carbon, it is releasing methane into the air.

Methane, is "an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide," Rich said. It has about 30 times more warming potential than CO2, which means it could accelerate climate change.

The team's work is just a glimpse into how the biological world will respond to climate change, Rich said.

"And they are really mediating a lot of the potential feedbacks to this process," she added. "So, how big the climate change will actually be."

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