Melting Snow Aids Absorption of Carbon Dioxide

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Monday, October 30th, 2017

Snow-free conditions

It appears that something good can come from something bad. Although rising global temperatures are causing seasonal snow cover to melt earlier in the spring, this allows for the snow-free boreal forests to absorb more carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.

Scientists believe that global warming is primarily caused by carbon dioxide emissions from human activities such as burning coal, the oil and gas industry, transportation and domestic heating. As global temperatures rise, we see changes in Earth’s climate such as the accelerated melting of glaciers, rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather conditions.

According to ESA on October 30, to predict the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere accurately, scientists need to consider both the sources of emissions as well as the absorption of carbon dioxide both on land and in the oceans. Boreal forests are well known to be an important carbon sink on land, but the amount of carbon these high-latitude northern forests can absorb is influenced by the amount of snow cover.

Spring recovery 1979–2015

To help quantify changes in carbon absorption, ESA’s GlobSnow project produced daily snow cover maps over the whole northern hemisphere from 1979 to 2015 using satellites.  

A team of climate and remote sensing scientists led by the Finnish Meteorological Institute recently analysed the information and found that the start of plant growth in the spring has shifted earlier by an average of eight days over the last 36 years.

By combining this information with ground-based observations of the atmosphere–ecosystem  carbon dioxide exchange from forests in Finland, Sweden, Russia and Canada, the team found that this earlier start to spring growth has increased the forest uptake of  carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 3.7% per decade. This acts as a brake on the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate the rapid increase of carbon dioxide from man-made emissions.

The scientists also found that the shift in spring recovery is much larger in Eurasian forests, leading to double the increase in carbon uptake compared to North American forests.

Snow-covered boreal forest

“Satellite data played an essential role in providing information on variability in the carbon cycle,” said Prof. Jouni Pulliainen, who led the research team at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

“By combining satellite- and ground-based information, we were able to turn observations of melting snow into higher-order information on springtime photosynthetic activity and carbon uptake.”

These new results will now be used to improve climate models and help to increase the accuracy in predictions of global warming.

Next year, ESA plans to improve the satellite-based record of global snow cover with the upcoming Snow_cci project of ESA’s Climate Change Initiative.

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