Permafrost Thaw Will Intensify Climate Change, says UNEP

As winter approaches and temperatures drop in the northern hemisphere, we’re more easily distracted from the effects of climate change in our planet’s colder regions. But this should be sobering: The United Nations Environment Programme released a report today about how the thawing of permafrost will cause additional climate change across the globe, as early as 2100.

Permafrost is the layer of soil that is frozen for longer than 2 years, mostly in northern climes. On top of the permafrost, there is a layer of soil called the “active layer” that thaws and refreezes with the seasons. According to UNEP’s predictions, that layer will thicken – i.e. more organic material will be exposed and thawed due to climate change. The danger here is not only that there will be a change in these ecosystems – less standing water and a climate migration of trees and their dependent organisms – but also that the decomposition of the newly exposed organic matter will release from 43 to 135 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2100 and 246 to 415 gigatonnes by 2200, accelerating climate change. This is predicted to begin as early as within the next few decades and could account for up to 39% of total carbon dioxide emissions.

The boreal forests – one of the locations in which Earth Day Network plants trees through the Canopy Project – and tundra would see the most drastic changes. Habitat would be lost due to the lack of wetlands that are formed when water collects on the top of the water-impermeable surface. This will change the types of species that can thrive in the environment, as well as the migratory patterns of many animals. Habitat migration due to the changes in growing seasons will lead to a change in the tree line, and fires would become more prevalent in areas with less standing water and more shrubbery.

Natural ecosystems are not the only things that would be affected. Infrastructure such as bridges, roads, buildings, railways and pipelines would be compromised due to the changing soil. It has already been predicted that climate change could cost up to US$6.1 billion in future costs to infrastructure to Alaska alone.

Due to the findings of this report, UNEP issued several policy recommendations to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and global leaders. The first is to commission a Special Report on Permafrost Emissions to support future policy and treaty negotiations. This will make sure that leaders take the effects of melting permafrost into account when planning future standards and policy. They also recommend creating national permafrost monitoring networks to ensure that the most up-to-date data is being collected. With the best information, the best possible policy can be achieved. The final recommendation is for nations to create plans for adaptation to these ecological changes.

Read the full report here.