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But over the long run, this more southerly environment will catch up.

The reason: In a warming climate, wildfires become more frequent and take out many of the shrubs and trees.

“We keep finding more surprises,” says Nicholas Parazoo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead author of the study, which appears in The Cryosphere, a scientific journal.

“And the scary word in all of this is ‘irreversible.’ Once we thaw permafrost, it becomes very difficult to refreeze.” In the study, Parazoo and his colleagues employed a sophisticated computer model that simulates what happens to carbon in permafrost as the Arctic responds to a warming climate.

Parazoo’s simulations show “no signs of slowing,” he and his co-authors write.

Over the long run, permafrost could add huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, with a potentially large impact on Earth’s climate.

“Then the permafrost emissions offset the carbon uptake by this vegetation,” Parazoo says.

While not trivial, the total emissions projected to come from permafrost by 2300 don’t really compete with fossil fuel burning. “We will still have an extra source of carbon to deal with,” Parazoo says.

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Overall, the new findings, coupled with previous research, suggest that the Arctic has entered a new epoch — call it “The Great Thawing” — with implications for the entire planet.km) — an area about three quarters as large as the United States — is projected to become a long-term source of carbon to the atmosphere.That projection takes into account increased plant growth.The study showed that areas further south will take longer to become a net source of carbon, and produce less of it by 2300.That’s because warmer temperatures there are projected to cause more growth of shrubs and trees.

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