Thawing permafrost threatens to intensify global warming, sending the planet beyond the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of increases that envoys at United Nations climate talks have set as a maximum.
Frozen soils that cover a quarter of the land area in the northern hemisphere contain 1,700 gigatons (1,700 billion tons) of carbon, twice the amount currently in the atmosphere, the UN Environment Program said today in a report released at the latest round of treaty negotiations in Doha.
- Special Report: 2012 Doha Climate Change Conference
Higher temperatures threaten to unlock greenhouse gases trapped in the soil, adding to the greenhouse effect and amplifying warming, according to the study. The thaw undermines buildings and roads, and threatens to drain lakes that are currently contained by the impermeable frozen soil, the report’s author, Kevin Schaefer, told reporters in Doha.
“Thawing permafrost in turn can impact global climate,” said Schaefer, a researcher at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. “It will begin to trigger what is called the permafrost-carbon feedback. Once the feedback starts, it’s irreversible because once you take that organic matter out, it’s impossible to put it back. It’ll also persist for centuries.”
Schaefer, speaking in Doha, said thawing permafrost could account for 39 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions by 2100. Because emissions from permafrost aren’t included in current projections of future emissions, the world risks overshooting its 2-degree warming target, he said.
The report recommended the UN conduct a special report into permafrost emissions, and the creation of monitoring stations in the main countries with the terrain: Russia, Canada, the U.S. and China.
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