Homer-Dixon on melting permafrost

Stack of folded newspapers

Is it possible to use melting permafrost to trap more carbon than it is off gassing into the atmosphere?

Cascade Institute director Dr. Thomas Homer Dixon and journalist/activist Richard Littlemore, both members of the Permafrost Carbon Feedback Action Group, discuss the possibility in the Vancouver Sun.

Here’s an excerpt:

 Permafrost Carbon Feedback is the threat in question. There is roughly twice as much carbon locked in global permafrost as there is loose in the atmosphere — the accumulation of thousands of years of biomatter from plants and animals that died and froze before they had time to decompose. Now, as the globe warms, the permafrost — and the material within — is beginning to thaw, releasing more greenhouse gases and reinforcing the warming. In the words of Thomas Homer-Dixon: “It’s one of two or three really big deal-breaking self-reinforcing feedbacks in the world.”

Homer-Dixon, executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University and a newly recruited member of the PCF Action Group, has made a national reputation in part from writing sometimes frightening and generally prescient books on threats to global security. His latest is called Commanding Hope, and you have to suspect that anyone who writes a book with “hope” in the title is working to bolster such hope as they have in their heart. Looking to northern permafrost, Homer-Dixon acknowledges, “I’m terrified by what’s potentially going to happen there.”

But he’s also intrigued. Climate change poses two challenges: the technical and the political, and PCF offers a degree of promise on both. Technically, there is no real mystery about what is accelerating global warming, but reversing the process (for example by blocking the sun’s energy through Solar Radiation Management or harvesting carbon dioxide directly from the air and sequestering it) will be difficult and expensive. Capturing enough carbon dioxide would be, in Homer-Dixon’s words: “the biggest industrial project in the history of the human species.” But in northern permafrost, there is a potential to use natural processes to sequester carbon. For example, by promoting plant growth in newly warmed areas and doing so in a way that protects existing permafrost, it might be possible to get nature on our side.

Read more in the Vancouver Sun.