In a report released on Tuesday, the United Nations warned that melting of permafrost in the northern hemisphere could release massive amounts of carbon-based greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, significantly affecting global warming due to climate change beyond what present models indicate.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report “Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost” was released at the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference. The conference is being held in Doha, Qatar and will continue until Friday, Dec. 7.
Only until the last four years has permafrost melt been investigated in greater detail and given more attention from UNEP as a significant potential factor in global warming models.
According to the report, 24% of the land mass in the Northern hemisphere contains permafrost which can extend down beneath the surface to almost 2,300 feet. By the year 2100 the possible 3° Celsius increase in global temperatures will cause a 6° Celsius increase in Arctic temperatures, which could melt from 30% to 85% of the permafrost near the surface releasing vast quantities of the presently trapped greenhouse gases CO2 and methane in the process.
In the news release announcing the report, Achim Steiner who is UNEP Executive Director stated, “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 continued, “Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long. 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.”
Stressing the importance of meeting the 2° Celsius temperature increase which the United Nations adopted, the lead author of the report Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado remarked, “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.”
In addition to environmental changes and damage, the damage to infrastructure (roads, bridges and buildings) in regions with permafrost could be staggering, placing added economic strain on those regions.
The report made three primary recommendations to investigate and find solutions to what it calls “the potential economic, social, and environmental impacts of permafrost degradation in a warming climate,
- “Commission a special report on permafrost emissions
- Create national permafrost monitoring networks
- Plan for adaptation”