Negotiators working on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Qatar ought to know that 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon lie buried in the permafrost, which is double the amount that currently wreaks so much havoc here on earth, reports UNEP. Then, as arctic temperatures rise as a result of global warming and the permafrost melts, tons of heat-trapping gas will gush into the atmosphere.
Only, this 1,700 gigaton bomb has not been accounted for in prediction models. That a huge concentration of latent ice-age old carbon poses potential danger not just to humanity and to other species but to the roads, pipelines and buildings lying above it has been neglected, said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. A suggested three-pronged course of action will hopefully change that.
A Thawing Bomb
“Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet’s future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world,” said Steiner.
“Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long,” he added.
The UNEP report, Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost was designed to spur dialogue among climate-treaty negotiators, policy makers and the general public as they prepare to create a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that expires this year. It also hacks a path to the way forward, instead of dropping concerned parties in an alarmist cloud.
Three proactive steps
First, the report’s authors recommend that the IPCC – the official voice of climate change – commission a special report that reveals the potential impact that carbon released from 30-85% of the permafrost might have on the environment, which would in turn support emergent (and enormously important) policy decisions.
Then, northern countries, especially Russia, Canada, China and the United States, should assume responsibility for permafrost monitoring stations that share data across a network. “The International Permafrost Association should continue to coordinate development and the national networks should remain part of the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost,” UNEP urges.
And finally, it behooves these nations to prepare for the worst. Structural damages, habitat destruction, migration, longer growing seasons, and increased risk of fire are just a few potential consequences.
But the biggest fear for those of us shy of oil spills, we already have an idea of what will happen if pipelines laid over this territory are destabilized as a result of the shifting ground.
“Infrastructure failure can have dramatic environmental consequences, as seen in the 1994 breakdown of the pipeline to the Vozei oilfield in Northern Russia, which resulted in a spill of 160,000 tonnes of oil, the world’s largest terrestrial oil spill,” UNEP reports.
These events are always financially crippling, politically disastrous, and environmentally criminal, which is powerful ammunition for the likes of Bill McKibben and the 350.org (global) crowd, as well as other activists, moviemakers and indigenous people who are determined to fell the Keystone XL Pipeline project.
Image of old Russian bomb in snow, Shutterstock