COUP: Constraining uncertainties in the permafrost-climate feedback

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Earth and Environment


As the global climate warms, thawing permafrost may lead to increased greenhouse gas release from Arctic and Boreal ecosystems. Scientists agree that this permafrost-climate feedback is important to the global climate system, but its magnitude and timing remains poorly understood. The overall aim of COUP is to use detailed understanding of landscape-scale processes to improve global scale climate models. Better predictions of how permafrost areas will respond to a warming climate can help us understand and plan for future global change. In recent years much scientific progress has been made towards understanding the complex responses of permafrost ecosystem to climate warming. Despite this, large challenges remain when it comes to including these processes in global climate models. Permafrost ecosystems are highly variable and studies show that very detailed field investigations are needed to understand complexities. Because global scale models cannot run at such high-resolutions, we propose an approach where local landscape-scale field studies and modelling are used to identify those key variables that should be improved in global models. We will carry out careful field studies and high-resolution modelling at field sites covering all pan-Eurasian environmental conditions. The system understanding gained from this will then be used to (1) scale key variables so they are useful for global models and (2) improve a new global climate model. In the final step, the improved global climate models will be run to quantify the impact of thawing permafrost on the global climate. Datasets produced in COUP will be freely available online so that they can be used by other scientists and help improvement of all global climate models. COUP is designed to maximise synergies with ongoing projects. Much of the needed data and system understanding was generated in other research programmes.

Planned Impact

In a wider sense, stakeholders in this project include anyone that benefits from increased understanding of the global climate system. More specifically we will aim at communicating our goals and end-results to (1) policy-makers affiliated with government, and (2) non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the general public with an interest in climate-change issues. Importantly, the latter group includes people living in areas affected by permafrost.

(1) Policy makers: Realistic projections of the global climate system are needed in order to make informed decisions regarding climate-policies of government. Earth system feedbacks that are not currently included in ESMs, such as the permafrost-climate feedback, have recently been highlighted by the IPCC as an important aspect of uncertainty in climate projections. The data underlying AR5 was created and collected under phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). CMIP6 is the next phase of this project and is likely to be an ongoing activity whereby modelling groups submit a core set of simulations for every new model version developed. UKESM1 will contribute to the CMIP6 modelling archive. Any future IPCC assessment report would be based on this evolving archive. We will work towards having the global-scale model-support datasets created in WP6 included in the CMIP benchmarking and evaluation software package. In addition to this we expect that policy makers at different levels of government will benefit from new understanding generated through COUP. As an example of the strong potential for ESM results in guiding national policy decisions, initial results have already been used by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as part of their advice to government on the appropriate UK contribution to global emissions reductions targets. It is envisaged that further developments in the understanding in this emerging area of science would, where appropriate, be rapidly exploited by the Met Office Hadley Centre as part of their mitigation advice to stakeholders through the Met Office Hadley Centre programme. We will make early contact with national representatives of the Arctic Council, the International Arctic Science Committee and Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) to inform them of the project plans, receive any relevant feedback they may offer and see if there is an interest in joint information campaigns.

(2) NGOs and the general public: We believe that the most efficient way to communicate ongoing research efforts and new results to NGOs and the general public is via a good webpage, the traditional media, social media and popular scientific seminars/meetings and educational material (brochures etc.). To maximise visibility in traditional media we will put out press-releases at the project start and finish. Additionally, press-releases will be put out as the project progresses to communicate any major findings. Via established networks we will also make personal contact with individual journalists. The department hosting WP8 at Stockholm University employs a full-time media communication specialist, who's services we are free to employ. In the social media we will make use of blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We will communicate both the scientific vision and results of COUP, but we will also try to communicate more personal experiences from working in the field and how scientists go about their days. Especially posts and pictures from fieldwork will have a strong public appeal. Here we can build on very positive experiences of such activities from the CARBO-North and PAGE21 projects.In addition to the activities mentioned above, we plan to organise open information-meetings in Yakutsk and Krasnojarsk (in conjunction with fieldwork in 2015). At the kick-off meeting we will make a first draft of a COUP brochure. This will be distributed at seminars, conferences and similar.