UNEP report urges policymakers to account for thawing permafrost in climate projections

November 28th, 2012
The village of Qannaaq, Greenland, in the Arctic, is built on permafrost. Credit: Andy Mahoney courtesy NSIDC
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has released a report recommending the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assess the impact of permafrost carbon dioxide and methane emissions in the negotiation of emissions targets and global climate change policy discussions.

The report recommends that the IPCC compile a special assessment report on permafrost. It also recommends that nations with extensive permafrost create national monitoring networks and make plans to mitigate the risks of thawing permafrost. These nations include Russia, Canada, China, and the United States.

"The infrastructure we have now is not adequate to monitor future changes in permafrost," said lead author Kevin Schaefer, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). "We need to greatly expand our current networks to monitor permafrost, which requires direct investment of money and resources by individual countries."

"Individual nations need to evaluate the risks of thawing permafrost and make plans to protect communities in the most vulnerable regions," Schaefer said. Homes, businesses, and other infrastructure in the far north were built on ground that stayed frozen, and may collapse if this ground thaws.

Permafrost is ground that stays frozen for at least two years in a row and occurs in about a quarter of the land surface in the Northern Hemisphere. The report, titled Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost, said Earth's permafrost contains 1,700 gigatons of carbon as frozen organic matter, twice that currently in the atmosphere. If this organic matter thaws and begins to decay, the resulting carbon dioxide and methane emissions will amplify global warming.

"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," Schaefer said.

The Lena River delta in Siberia is an example of permafrost and shows polygons formed by the intersection of ice wedges. Credit: Konstanze Piel courtesy Alfred Wegener Institute
"Anthropogenic emissions targets in the climate change treaty need to account for these emissions or we risk overshooting the 2 degrees Celsius maximum warming target," he added.

Targets for anthropogenic emissions in the proposed U.N. climate change treaty limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, placing an overall limit on total global carbon emissions.

However, the potential hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost are not included in current climate-prediction models.

"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," said U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

NSIDC scientist Kevin Schaefer (left) and his field research team drill permafrost cores at Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's North Slope. Credit: Tingjun Zhang courtesy NSIDC
"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," he said.

"Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems, and infrastructure has been neglected for too long," Steiner added.

According to the report, 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 degrees Celsius means a 6 degrees Celsius increase in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85 percent of near-surface permafrost.

Warming permafrost could emit 43 to 135 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2100 and 246 to 415 gigatons by 2200. Emissions could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries, the report said.

"Permafrost emissions could ultimately account for up to 39 percent of total emissions," Schaefer said. "This must be factored in to treaty negotiations expected to replace the Kyoto Protocol."

The Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beginning 2005. While the U.N. climate change treaty encourages industrialized countries to limit GHG emissions, the Kyoto Protocol commits them to do so. Industrialized countries are expected to recommit to the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol in 2013.

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