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NASA scientists discover spring thaw makes a difference

Using a suite of microwave remote sensing instruments aboard satellites, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., and the University of Montana, Missoula, have observed a recent trend of earlier thawing across the northern high latitudes.

This regional thawing trend, advancing almost one day a year since 1988, has the potential to alter the cycle of atmospheric carbon dioxide intake and release by vegetation and soils across the region, potentially resulting in changes in Earth's climate. The lengthening growing season appears to be promoting more carbon uptake by the vegetation than is being released into the atmosphere for the region. How long this trend will occur depends on whether soils continue to remain cold and wet.

Research scientists have been studying freeze/thaw dynamics in North America and Eurasia's boreal forests and tundra to decipher effects on the timing and length of the growing season. These regions encompass almost 30 percent of global land area. They store a major portion of Earth's carbon in vegetation, in seasonally frozen and permafrost soils. Large expanses of boreal forest and tundra are underlain by permafrost, a layer of permanently frozen soil found underneath the active, seasonally thawed soil.

"Frozen soil can store carbon for hundreds to thousands of years," said lead author Dr. Kyle McDonald of JPL, "but when the permafrost thaws and begins to dry out, it releases the carbon back into the atmosphere." The concern is that eventually carbon released from the soil will prevail over the amount being taken in by growing plants. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would increase at an accelerated rate, fostering even greater warming of the region and affecting global climate.

With help from NASA radars and other orbiting satellite microwave remote sensing instruments, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Special Scanning
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Contact: Alan Buis
alan.d.buis@jpl.nasa.gov
818-354-0474
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
12-Dec-2003


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