Permafrost covers almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere, and according to recent calculations contains 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon – that’s an amount twice what is currently in our atmosphere.
A new report released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled ‘Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost’ warns that the release of this permafrost carbon could seriously amplify global warming and, to a lesser extent, cause radical changes in ecosystems and cause costly infrastructural damage.
“Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet’s future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
“Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long,” he added. “This report seeks to communicate to climate-treaty negotiators, policy makers and the general public the implications of continuing to ignore the challenges of warming permafrost.”
The report issues the following specific policy recommendations to address the potential economic, social and environmental impacts of permafrost degradation in a warming climate:
- Commission a Special Report on Permafrost Emissions: The IPCC may consider preparing a special assessment report on how carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost would influence global climate to support climate change policy discussions and treaty negotiations.
- Create National Permafrost Monitoring Networks: To adequately monitor permafrost, individual countries may consider taking over operation of monitoring sites within their borders, increasing funding, standardizing the measurements and expanding coverage. This applies particularly to countries with the most permafrost: Russia, Canada, China and the United States. The International Permafrost Association should continue to coordinate development and the national networks should remain part of the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost.
- Plan for Adaptation: Nations with substantial permafrost, such as those mentioned above, may consider evaluating the potential risks, damage and costs of permafrost degradation to critical infrastructure. Most nations currently do not have such plans, which will help policy makers, national planners and scientists quantify costs and risks associated with permafrost degradation.
The majority of the permafrost covering our planet formed during or since the last ice age and in some places in Canada and Siberia extends to depths of more than 700 metres. The release of the carbon due to warming would start what is known as the permafrost carbon feedback, which increases surface temperatures and further accelerates the warming of the permafrost.
A process, mind you, that is irreversible once started.
“The release of carbon dioxide and methane from warming permafrost is irreversible: once the organic matter thaws and decays away, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost,” said lead author Kevin Schaefer, from the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“Anthropogenic emissions’ targets in the climate change treaty need to account for these emissions or we risk overshooting the 2°C maximum warming target,” he added.
The UN Environment Programme notes that ”
Arctic and alpine air temperatures are expected to increase at roughly twice the global rate, and climate projections indicate substantial loss of permafrost by 2100. A global temperature increase of 3°C means a 6°C increase in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85 per cent of near-surface permafrost.”
“Thawing permafrost represents a dramatic physical change with huge impacts to ecosystems and human infrastructure,” said Mr. Schaefer. “Individual nations need to develop plans to evaluate the risks, costs, and mitigation strategies to protect human infrastructure in permafrost regions most vulnerable to thaw.”