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Scientists urge Arctic nations to assess effects of thawing permafrost

Alaska Dispatch

The effects of thawing permafrost on global climate change is not being taken into account by government agencies seeking to create treaties on carbon dioxide and methane emission, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Permafrost -- ground that is permanently frozen -- makes up about a quarter of the land surface in the Northern Hemisphere and a giant swath of Alaska. As permafrost thaws, carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere.

UNEP's report urges the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the impact of thawing permafrost in the Arctic.

While targets for the proposed UN climate change treaty limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, this target does not take into account the release of emissions from permafrost. Arctic and alpine air temperatures are expected to increase at around twice the global rate, thawing permafrost at a quicker rate than accounted for in current climate change models.

“A global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius means a 6 degrees Celsius increase in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85 percent of near-surface permafrost," according to the UNEP.

The UNEP is advising that nations with extensive permafrost, including Russia, Canada, China and the U.S., create monitoring networks to track its changes. “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,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.