UNEP Releases Report on Thawing Permafrost, Warns of Increased GHG Emissions and Threats to Ecosystems

UNEP27 November 2012: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a report, titled “Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost,” which aims to highlight the potential hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost. The report also underscores the impacts of decreasing permafrost to ecosystems, and recommends an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment on permafrost.

According to the report, climate-prediction modelling does not currently take into account greenhouse gas emissions from warming permafrost. The report outlines that permafrost consists of an active layer, of up to two meters that thaws and refreezes seasonally, as well as the permanently frozen soil underneath. If the thickness of the active layer increases due to warming, quantities of organic matter stored in the frozen soil would begin to thaw and decay, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

The report predicts that this will cause a permafrost carbon feedback loop, which increases surface temperatures and thus accelerates the further warming of permafrost. According to the report, 43-135 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent could be released by 2100, and ultimately permafrost emissions could account for 39% of emissions.

The report also highlights the impact of warming permafrost on ecosystems and infrastructure. It notes that the dominant ecosystems in permafrost regions are boreal forests to the south and tundra to the north. As permafrost is impermeable to water, rain and melt water pool on the surface, forming lakes and wetlands used by migratory birds as summer breeding grounds. Decreasing permafrost would seriously impact these ecosystems.

Key recommendations of the report include: the commissioning of a special IPCC report on permafrost emissions; the creation of national permafrost monitoring networks; and the development of national plans for adaptation in permafrost countries such as the Russian Federation, Canada, China and the US. [UNEP Press Release] [Publication: Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost]