WASHINGTON — Scientists who study the Arctic say they’re worried that nations meeting this week to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions aren’t adequately considering how much carbon dioxide and methane could be released from the world’s rapidly thawing permafrost.
Researchers have known that permafrost is warming for some time, but they’ve only recently begun to accurately measure just how much carbon is in the Earth’s frozen regions. And they’re only beginning to understand the consequences of such unanticipated greenhouse gas emissions, which weren’t factored into the emissions targets world leaders are considering this week at the U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar.
Permafrost, ground that stays frozen for at least two years in a row, stores vast amounts of decayed plant matter. As the Earth warms, that frozen organic matter thaws and is released in the form of carbon dioxide or, more troublingly, methane. Global warming is creating a feedback loop — as the Earth warms, higher temperatures put the permafrost at greater risk. And melting permafrost releases greenhouse gases.
As they learn more about the carbon in permafrost, scientists say the possible emissions must be factored into climate talks. A report issued this week by the U.N. Environment Program urges the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the impact of permafrost carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The report relies heavily on research done in Alaska by scientists with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
“The message is that policymakers have to be aware of the possible consequences of an already changing world," said Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.