UNEP warns of catastrophic permafrost melt by 2100

By RTCC Staff

Frozen soils could account for 39% of emissions as temperatures rise (Source: subarcticmike/Creative Commons)

Melting permafrost could account for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and must be considered by governments meeting for the climate talks in Doha, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned.

Researchers have found that melting permafrost could emit 43 to 135 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2100 and up to 415 gigatonnes by 2200.

This would blow apart hopes of keeping global warming below 2C on pre-industrial levels.

Permafrost covers around a quarter of the northern hemisphere and contains around 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon; twice that currently in the atmosphere, yet its melt has not been included in climate-prediction modelling to date.

Permafrost is made up of an ‘active’ layer that melts each summer and permanently frozen soil underneath. As temperatures rise, scientists warn this active layer could increase, causing the organic matter stored in the frozen soil to thaw and decay and more carbon dioxide and methane to be emitted into the atmosphere.

The report recommends a special Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment be carried out on permafrost and national monitoring networks and adaptation plans be established.

It also says permafrost melt must be considered in the new global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, currently being discussed in Doha.

“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 Kevin Schaefer, lead-author of the report 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,” said Schaefer.


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