Projecting the release of carbon from permafrost soils using a perturbed parameter ensemble modelling approach
Abstract. The soils of the northern hemispheric permafrost region are estimated to contain 1100 to 1500 Pg of carbon. A substantial fraction of this carbon has been frozen and therefore protected from microbial decay for millennia. As anthropogenic climate warming progresses much of this permafrost is expected to thaw. Here we conduct perturbed model experiments on a climate model of intermediate complexity, with an improved permafrost carbon module, to estimate with formal uncertainty bounds the release of carbon from permafrost soils by the year 2100 and 2300 CE. We estimate that by year 2100 the permafrost region may release between 56 (13 to 118) Pg C under Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 2.6 and 102 (27 to 199) Pg C under RCP 8.5, with substantially more to be released under each scenario by the year 2300. Our analysis suggests that the two parameters that contribute most to the uncertainty in the release of carbon from permafrost soils are the size of the non-passive fraction of the permafrost carbon pool and the equilibrium climate sensitivity. A subset of 25 model variants are integrated 8000 years into the future under continued RCP forcing. Under the moderate RCP 4.5 forcing a remnant near-surface permafrost region persists in the high Arctic, eventually developing a new permafrost carbon pool. Overall our simulations suggest that the permafrost carbon cycle feedback to climate change will make a significant contribution to climate change over the next centuries and millennia, releasing a quantity of carbon 3 to 54 % of the cumulative anthropogenic total.