A new report on permafrost slowly thawing in the Arctic creating methane and carbon dioxide emissions highlights an approaching dangerous climate tipping point. There is a huge amount of organic matter frozen in permafrost, estimated to contain 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon, twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. And it is starting to melt. With no way to stop it except indirectly through us reducing the rate of global warming by reducing our own emissions.
"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 lead author Kevin Schaefer, 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 target," he added.
Watch this youtube interview with Lead author Professor Kevin Schaefer, Research Scientist at the University of Colorado being interviewed at the climate talks in Doha:
The report - Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost (PDF) - was published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and launched at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Doha on November 27. (See media release)
Caption: Figure 12. This model projection indicates a 59% loss in near-surface permafrost area by 2100 for the IPCC A1B scenario. The dark grey regions show where taliks may form and permafrost in the top 15 meters of soil may completely thaw (Schaefer et al. 2011). Click Image to Enlarge
Climate projections indicate substantial loss of permafrost by 2100, yet the substantial emissions of methane and carbon dioxide have not yet been factored in to emission reduction targets and the Global Emissions Gap during the UN auspiced climate negotiations. The report estimates that Warming permafrost could emit 43 to 135 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2100, and 246 to 415 gigatonnes by 2200. Emissions could start within the next few decades and continue for several centuries and may account for up to 39 per cent of total emissions.
As permafrost, the organic matter is locked away, inert. But as the earth warms, the ice in the soil melts and the organics in the soil start decomposing, producing methane and carbon dioxide that bubble up through the soil into the atmosphere.
The Arctic is already warming at roughly twice the global rate. Already we are seeing a significant reduction in summer sea ice extent, changing the albedo of the Arctic increasing the level warming, and unprecedented surface melting on the Greenland Ice Sheet. As the Arctic permafrost begins to thaw, methane and carbon dioxide will significantly amplify global warming - a permafrost carbon feedback loop.
"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," said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
"Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long," he added. "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."
Impacts on ecosystems and human infrastructure
Most of the buildings, roads and pipelines in the Arctic have taken the stability of permafrost foundations for granted. But as the ice in permafrost thaws, all these structures are at risk of major damage due to foundational settling. The report points to in particular the 1994 Russian Arctic Oil Spill near the town of Usinsk in Northern Russia, which released 160,000 tons of oil into the sensitive Siberian tundra environment, as an example of damage to infrastructure that may occur due to permafrost thaw.
"All this north west corner of Alaska is very close to big changes and I think that is one of the hot spots we should be paying attention to what is going on there." said report co-author Vladimir Romanovsky from University of Alaska at Fairbanks
The costs of repairing human infrastructure from permafrost degradation will increase substantially over the next 30 years. Alaska is likely to spend 1.4% of it's annual budget on combating the damage.
"Climate change could add $3.6–$6.1 billion to future costs for public infrastructure in Alaska from now to 2030, an increase of 10% to 20% above normal maintenance costs (Larsen et al. 2008). Roughly half the costs fall into the transportation sector (roads and airports) and a third to repair water and sewer systems. This unavoidable cost amounts to about 1.4% of Alaska’s annual budget and is comparable to the annual budgets of many state government agencies." says the report.
Professor Vladimir Romanovsky from University of Alaska at Fairbanks, one of the report co-authors, explained that thawing of permafrost is becoming a much bigger and more costly infrastructure problem, "For buildings, for roads especially, for any kind of infrastructure. And if you move further north or north-west there are some villages which are suffering from degradation of permafrost right now! There is some discussion about relocation of these villages, and it is not only because coastal erosion or river banks erosion but even in the settlements like Selawik for example, which are not on the coast. There are some big problem with thawing permafrost affecting infrastructure of the village. The people who live there are definitely concerned about what will happen to these areas."
Thawing permafrost will also change ecosystems markedly resulting in some species becoming 'winners' and some 'losers'. The boreal ecosystem is likely to expand northwards into the tundra. Many migratory bird species will be impacted by the changing landscape.
"Permafrost will change with surface conditions. For example, forests will turn into swamps and bogs, or it could turn into much drier conditions as well, depending on environmental settings. Lakes can grow in the north but disappear in the south. Actually the rate of changes in lakes shows that even in the continuous colder conditions mostly lakes are disappearing right now." said Professor Romanovsky in describing the impact on ecosystems.
"So changes in the environmental conditions for wildlife will be very significant. Of course There will be some winners and losers. Of course an ecosystem is more adaptive than infrastructure I would guess. So probably the ecosystem will adapt more smoothly however again there will be some losers. Some species could be suffering from these changes. And some of them maybe welcome these changes. It will be different. The uncertainty is huge. That is why there is lots of efforts right now to understand what changes permafrost, how it will affect ecosystem, how it will affect vegetation, how it will affect species composition. How it will affect animals and some of them very important for humans who live there in Alaska, and not only in Alaska but in the north." Romanovsky said.
While permafrost thaw is starting now, the major climate impacts are still likely to be decades away. Romanovsky says "It all depends on rate of changes in climate. What we know about it now is mostly based on these climate models, projections. Those projections are saying that the major acceleration of warming will still probably happen in say 20 to 30 years." But according to Romanovsky There is huge uncertainty in modelled projections as demonstrated by the early reduction in sea ice extent.
You can watch a 15 minute interview with Professor Vladimir Romanovsky from the Geophysics Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where he answers several questions in this Youtube video.
Policy Recommendations: further research, monitoring network, and plan to adapt
The report makes 3 major policy recommendations with regard to monitoring the permafrost thaw and managing the risks to ecosystems and human infrastructure.
- 1. Urge the IPCC to commission a special report on Permafrost Emissions. The report would gather the necessary scientific details on how methane and CO2 emissions from permafrost will impact the global climate system now and in the future with different scenarios so that these details can be included in policy discussions in climate negotiations. New modelling development for the next IPCC scientific report, due for release in 2013 and 2014, was frozen in 2009 thus excluding potential effects of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate.
"The modeling teams simply did not have time to incorporate the permafrost carbon feedback into their models. None of the global climate projections for the IPCC’s AR5 account for the effects of the permafrost carbon feedback, all are biased on the low side relative to global temperature and anthropogenic emissions targets based on these projections would be biased high." says the report in arguing for the need for a special report on emissions from Permafrost Thaw.
2. Create a standardized Permafrost Monitoring Network. At the moment scientific data is being gathered by independent research teams with differing research objectives, under limited and irregular funding, resulting in different instrument design, installation and operation. The report highlights that a Monitoring Network needs to be established to research and provide accurate data on rates of emission and where the greatest permafrost change and loss are expected.
"This applies to all countries with permafrost, but particularly to those with the most permafrost: Russia, Canada, China and the United States. Switzerland and China successfully created national networks from portions of the TSP, but this is not adequate to monitor permafrost globally." says the report.
3. Plan for Adaptation. There needs to be considerable assessment of the risks, costs, planning, and mitigation strategies involved with property and infrastructure damage associated with permafrost degradation. This will apply to all affected countries but particularly Russia, Canada, China and the United States. Building codes for the Arctic may require overhaul and updating, and building techniques may need modifying. The costs to regional government and communities will be considerable in adapting to the changing landscape.
Caption: Figure 8: Permafrost temperatures at 20 meters depth have risen over the past 30 years, as seen in these temperature observations from a north-south transect of TSP sites in Alaska (modified from Romanovsky et al. 2011). Click Image to Enlarge
Solution: Drastic reduction in fossil fuel emissions required
So we know methane and CO2 permafrost emissions are a problem for stimulating global warming. We know the permafrost thawing process will impact hugely on ecosystems and human infrastructure in the Arctic.
"The major thing is What we see right now is just the beginning. So what people are experiencing right now and saying 'Oh how bad it is.' It will be much worse. So that's the problem." said Professor Romanovsky.
While continued research, monitoring, and adaptation planning will be vital in coming years, it is a matter of what can we do about the problem on a meta scale?
There is only one way we can reduce the overall impact of global warming in the Arctic: reduce our own fossil fuel emissions drastically and quickly. For the industrialised countries to take the lead and implement the 2007 Bali roadmap of 25% to 40% emission reduction by 2020 based upon 1990 levels. And for Industrialised countries to keep their promises for financing the Green Climate fund to help developing countries mitigate and adapt.
It can be done. Europe is already on target recently achieving 20% emissions reduction on 1990 levels. But the lack of ambition by other industrialised nations has resulted in Europe refusing for the moment to set higher goals.
Substantial technology transfer is also needed from the 1st world to the third world to obviate the need for the development of the 1200 proposed coal fired power stations as reported by the Word Resource Institute.
Extensive background on Permafrost: from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) All About Frozen Ground website.
- UNEP media release, 27 November 2012 - Thawing of Permafrost Expected to Cause Significant Additional Global Warming, Not yet Accounted for in Climate Predictions
- Kevin Schaefer, Hugues Lantuit, Vladimir E. Romanovsky, Edward A. G. Schuur,
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 27 November 2012 Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost (PDF). Note images used all come from this report.
- Youtube Video published 26 November 2012 - COP18: Kevin Schaefer, Research Scientist, University of Colorado
- Youtube Video by Geophysics Institute, 29 November 2012 - GI researcher co-author of international permafrost report