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Report Says IPCC Needs to Address Melting Permafrost

By Dan Yawitz

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report early Tuesday morning that recommended the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) address the impact of warming permafrost and the large volume of methane and carbon dioxide that will be emitted from the ground if permafrost continues to melt. The report argues that these additional emissions should be considered in any international negotiation of emissions targets and discussion of climate change policy.

The UNEP report, called “Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost,” recommended that the IPCC commission a special report to address the impact of permafrost emissions. It also urged the panel to create a separate, national permafrost-monitoring network, in order to standardize and expand the monitoring of these emissions. That network would include countries such as the United States, Russia, Canada, and China, which have some of the largest areas of permafrost. 

Massive amounts of greenhouse gases trapped below thawing permafrost will likely seep into the air over the next several decades, accelerating and amplifying global warming, scientists warn.
Credit: NASA

“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) in a press release. “We need to greatly expand our current networks to monitor permafrost, which requires direct investment of money and resources by individual countries.” 

Permafrost is the soil in high latitudes that stays frozen year-round. It occupies nearly 24 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere. In order to qualify as permafrost, the soil temperature must remain below 32°F for at least two years, but there are thick seams of permafrost that have remained solid for thousands of years.

While a few inches of topsoil tends to thaw in the summer (even in arctic regions), the UNEP report estimated that a global temperature increase of 5.4°F would lead to a 10.8°F increase in temperature in the Arctic, which would result in a loss of up to 85 percent of surface-level permafrost. A loss of that scale would have severe ecological and economic impacts. Those range from the increased frequency of rockslides, to the destruction of infrastructure built on the once-solid ground.

This melting permafrost would also release a large quantity of heat-trapping gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, and lead to an acceleration of the greenhouse effect.

Permafrost contains an enormous amount of organic matter that has accumulated over thousands of years without being able to decompose. If the permafrost were to thaw, that matter would decay and much of it would be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane.

UNEP estimated thawing permafrost could emit 43-to-135 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2100 and 246-to-415 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2200. While uncertainties are high, emitting that much CO2 that quickly would be “irreversible, on human time scales,” according to the report. Another study from earlier this year estimated that the emissions from melting permafrost alone could raise temperatures by as much as .5°F by 2100, and up to 3°F by 2300.

“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 next IPCC report, which will include climate projections, is due in 2014. Because some of the international negotiations are based on those projections, at issue is whether they properly account for how warming may accelerate and lead to more warming by releasing trapped greenhouse gases in permafrost.

“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.”

Representatives from the countries that are parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting this week in Doha, Qatar, to negotiate the terms of an extension of the Kyoto treaty, which expires at the end of this year.

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