Melting Permafrost may accelerate Global Warming, UNEP Scientists Warn
Nairobi, 7 February 2001 - Global warming may be set to accelerate as rising temperatures in the Arctic melt the permafrost causing it to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, scientists warned today (WED). An estimated 14 per cent of the world's carbon is stored in Arctic lands.
But there is new and emerging evidence that this ancient carbon, locked away in these frozen lands, is starting to be released as rising temperatures cause the permafrost to melt and its organic material to be broken down by bacteria.
Svein Tveitdal, managing director of GRID Arendal in Norway, a UNEP environmental information centre monitoring the melting of the permafrost, told a meeting at the 21st session of the United Nations's Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya today: "Permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, locking away carbon and other greenhouse gases like methane, for thousands of year. But there is now evidence that this is no longer the case, and the permafrost in some areas is starting to give back its carbon. This could accelerate the greenhouse effect".
He said there were already impacts on roads, buildings, pipelines and other infrastructure occurring in Arctic areas like Alaska and Siberia as result of the recent decades of climate change. Permafrost, which is a solid structure of frozen soil, can be an ideal terrain on which to build.
But rising temperatures can turn it into a soft, slurry-like, material which can trigger subsidence and damage to buildings and structures.
Studies by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks indicate that a change in permafrost temperature of minus four degrees Centigrade to minus one degree Centigrade decreases the load capacity of permafrost by as much as 70 per cent. In some parts of Siberia homes and buildings are already suffering as a result with cracks and other fractures appearing.
Dr Tveitdal, whose organisation is UNEP's key Arctic centre, said it was urgent for governments to act to reduce the threat of climate change on the Arctic.
He said it was important for nations to implement the targets of a five per cent cut back in greenhouse gases, agreed to in Kyoto in 1997, as a first step.
"The political response at the moment is far slower than the estimated rate of climate change this century. Even with the Kyoto targets, we are far away from reducing emissions by the 60 per cent to 70 per cent researchers suggest is necessary to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere," said Dr Tveitdal.
He said the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had added new urgency. The IPCC's scientists now estimate that temperatures this century may rise by up to 5.8 degrees C.
"In some areas like the Arctic you might have up to 10 degrees C this century, " he said.
UNEP believe that it is inevitable that countries in the Arctic will have to therefore adapt to the impacts of global warming. Crucial to this will be good monitoring of the way the permafrost is responding to rising temperatures.
GRID Arendal have produced interactive maps, illustrating the current extent of permafrost in blue, which will act as a baseline from which scientists and policy makers can track the melting and shrinking of the Arctic's frozen soils.
"I do not think it is radical to say that the map will become progressively less blue in the coming years," said Dr Tveitdal.
The threat of climate change to the Arctic and its permafrost will take centre stage at the Arctic Council meeting of ministers taking place in Finland in June. Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director is expected to attend this crucial event.
UNEP scientists fear the melting of the permafrost and the disruption caused may also have important impacts on the wildlife, such as the reindeer, and the traditional lifestyle indigenous people living there.
An estimated 200,000 indigenous people, drawn from 30 ethnic groups, are represented in Arctic Russia alone.
For more information, including copy of the map, please contact: Nick Nuttall, tel 254 2 623381 or Mobile 0733 632755, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tore Brevik, UNEP Spokesman on 254-2-623292 or Robert Bisset on 254-2-623084, email: email@example.com
Svein Tveitdal: tel. +47-37035730, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maps available: http://www.grida.no/prog/polar/ipa/index.htm
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Documentation and press information about the 21st session of the Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at: www.unep.org/GC_21st/
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UNEP News Release 01/16