More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires

July 31, 2013 • Climate Change & Mitigation, United States, Daily Email Recap

More Wildfires = More Warming = More Wildfires
Why scientists are scared of the link between bigger wildfires and rapid thawing of northern permafrost.

To step into the US Army Corp of Engineers’ Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility in Fox, Alaska-just north of Fairbanks-is to step back in time. Burrowed into the silt layers of an unassuming hillside, the tunnel is like a scene out of a sub-Arctic Indiana Jones adventure. Shivering, you walk the length of an underground football field, past protruding bones of Ice Age animals (including mammoths) and huge ice wedges, which were frozen in place long before Hebrew scribes compiled the Old Testament. The smell is overpowering: Dead plants and other organic materials are suspended in the frozen soil walls, decomposing and reverting back into the carbon dioxide and water from which they were originally formed. But because of the cold, that process is extremely slow: Deep in the cave, a 32,000-year-old frozen plant sticks out of a wall. It’s still green. The leaves still contain chlorophyll.

That plant, like the permafrost cave as a whole, is in a state of frozen suspension. But walking through the tunnel, you’re acutely aware of how quickly that suspension might end. The facility is maintained through a cooling system at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, without which the cave would collapse, and the ancient geological history lesson would be abruptly over. And the carbon that had slowly accumulated in the soils of the cave over tens of thousands of years? Much of it would be released into the air.

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