Massive Stores of Carbon Trapped under Frozen Expanses Risk Being Unleashed


Human Wrongs Watch

Massive stores of carbon trapped under the northern hemisphere’s frozen expanses risk being unleashed and significantly contributing to global warming should thawing of the region’s permafrost continue to accelerate, a United Nations report warns.

A scientist (bottom right) standing in front of an ice-rich permafrost exposure on the coast of Herschel Island in Yukon Territory, Canada. Photo: Michael Fritz

Released on 27 November 2012 on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in the Qatari capital of Doha, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report – Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost – underlines the potential hazards facing global ecosystems as well as national infrastructures if the rigid permafrost terrain were to become unstable.

It also warns that the threat posed by carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost has only begun to enter mainstream scientific discourse in recent years and, as a result, has not been included in climate prediction modelling.

Rapid Increase 

In a news release marking the report’s launch, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, emphasized the role permafrost could play in rapidly increasing the effects of global warming.

“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,” Steiner noted.

“Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long,” he continued, adding that the report sought “to communicate to climate-treaty negotiators, policy-makers and the general public the implications of continuing to ignore the challenges of warming permafrost.”

Most of the planet’s permafrost formed during the last ice age and extends up to 700 metres in parts of Russia and Canada. It constitutes an active layer of up to two metres in thickness sitting atop a stratum of frozen soil.

Huge Quantities of Organic Matter Trapped in the Frozen Soil

Although permafrost regularly thaws each summer and refreezes in the winter, an increase in thickness of the active layer due to global warming would cause huge quantities of organic matter trapped in the frozen soil to thaw and decay, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

The report’s finding that permafrost emissions could ultimately account for up to 39 per cent of total global emissions have prompted UNEP and the report’s authors to urge action at the Doha climate conference.

“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,” the report’s lead author, Kevin Schaefer, noted.

With most climate change-related legislation ignoring the threat posed by the permafrost thawing, the report recommends a special assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as the creation of national monitoring networks and adaptation plans as key steps to dealing with the potential impacts of what could be “a significant source of emissions” and “a major factor in global warming.”

Substantial Impact on Human Activities

UNEP also warns that changes in the permafrost could have a substantial impact on human activities as the thawing would cause the terrain to become structurally weak and unsteady, ultimately adding to the growing costs associated with public infrastructure owing to climate change.

Schaefer confirmed that the thawing permafrost represented a dramatic physical change with potentially huge impacts on human infrastructure networks.

“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,” he concluded.

UN Climate Change Conference

Meanwhile, thousands of government representatives, international organizations and civil society members have gathered in the Qatari capital of Doha for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which kicked off On 26 November 2012 with a call to build on and implement previously agreed decisions to curb global carbon emissions by the year 2020.

“We have a precious opportunity over the coming days, and we must make full use of it,” said the President of the Conference of the Parties (COP 18), Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, on the opening day of the talks, urging conference attendees to stick to agreed timetables and speedily implement already-agreed decisions.

The ten-day meeting brings together the 195 Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Under the Protocol, 37 States – consisting of highly industrialized countries and countries undergoing the process of transition to a market economy – have legally binding emission limitation and reduction commitments. Government delegates at the Conference will, among other goals, try to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012.

In her opening remarks to the Conference, UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, highlighted recent UN-led reports which point to the urgency of keeping global average temperatures from rising beyond an internationally agreed level of two degrees Celsius, beyond which climate change would have serious impacts.

World at Risk of Seeing a Four Degree Celsius Rise in Temperatures

Analysis published by the World Bank last week shows the world remains at risk of seeing a four degree Celsius rise in temperatures by the end of the century.

In its recently-released 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said greenhouse gas concentration reached a record high last year, while the Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that the gap between what is needed in terms of emission reductions to stay below two degrees Celsius and what is so far promised by countries is still widening, not decreasing.

Figueres stressed that countries can still reverse these trends if they decide to act, since the knowledge, technology and policy options needed to curb emissions are already available to them. However, she emphasized that time is running out.

“Expert analysis consistently says that we do have the possibility to keep on track and that to act now is safer and much less costly than to delay,” she said. “In the last three years, policy and action towards a sustainable, clean energy future has been growing faster than ever. But the door is closing fast because the pace and scale of action is simply not yet enough. So Doha must deliver its part in the longer-term solution.”

Durban Platform

During a similar gathering in the South African city of Durban last year, 194 UNFCCC parties agreed on a package of decisions – known as the Durban Platform – which include the launch of a protocol or legal instrument that would apply to all members, a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and the launch of the Green Climate Fund, which was created to help developing nations protect themselves from climate impacts and build their own sustainable futures.

During informal talks in Bangkok, the Thai capital, in September, countries also set specific objectives for the meeting in Doha, which include triggering a new phase of climate action and filling in the gaps in the international policy response to climate change.

The Doha gathering will seek to meet the objectives set forth in another climate change meeting, held in Bali, and plan the work of the Durban Platform. In addition, it will address other issues such as deforestation, agriculture, and development and transfer of technology.

Climate initiatives in developing countries which have improved the lives of the urban poor will also be showcased at the Conference, as well as other innovative approaches to find solutions for climate change.

*Source: UN news release.

2012 Human Wrongs Watch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: