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Arctic Times

The UN issues an early warning about melting permafrost

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns against the effects of global warming on permafrost, and recommends conducting more research into understanding the effects. Conclusions from such research should prepare the Arctic population for the dangers ahead as well as dangers they are already facing. BY Lars Kullerud Svein Tveitdal

The polar areas are important in the climate debate, and the permafrost of Greenland and in Antarctica even more so. The creation of deep-sea water in the North Atlantic can affect sea currents and have severe climatic effects. The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that earth’s mean temperature will increase between 1,4 – 5,8 degrees Celsius in this century and the temperature in the Arctic will most likely rise the most.

Permafrost areas will be reduced
Permafrost is a typical characteristic of the Arctic and can be from a few metres to one kilometre deep. Today’s spread of permafrost in the northern hemisphere is shown on the map. The permafrost in the northern Siberia and North America is deep and continuous. Further south, permafrost is more spread out and is mostly found on mountains as far south as Sierra
Nevada in Spain. In southern Norway, the elevation limit for permafrost on the highest mountains decreased by about 100 metres the last 2-300 years. An equal reduction has been observed in Alaska and in the Alps. Models developed by scientists from IPCC show a possible reduction of up to 16 per cent the next 50 years, especially in areas with discontinuous permafrost.

Damages to the infrastructure
The ground in areas with permafrost is normally suitable for building, however scientists at the University of Alaska have found a temperature increase in permafrost from -4 to -1 degree Celsius. Such a warm-up reduces the ability of the ground to support large structures by 70 per cent. In some stations like Fairbanks, Alaska, a change has been registered since 1955, and in Norris and Yakutsk in Russia, more than 500 tall buildings have been significantly damaged. Similar damages are reported on roads and pipe lines. Damages to infrastructure are expected to increase in lieu with global warming. Erosion and the frequency of landslides are expected to increase once the permafrost decreases and the active layer gets deeper.

Danger to indigenous people and ecosystems
Climate changes can affect the vegetation on the tundra. In Arctic Russia alone, 200,000 indigenous people live partly as nomads, surviving by reindeer herding. Erosion and changes to the landscape are expected to have a negative effect on the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous people and threaten their livelihoods.

Speeding up the greenhouse effect
For thousands of years the tundra has worked as a carbon sink, because dead vegetation does not rot but is stored in the ground. Thinning of the permafrost allows micro-organisms to break down the biological material. In this process, methane and carbon dioxide are released. In Alaska it is documented that the tundra has changed from being a carbon stock to
becoming a source of carbon to the atmosphere. The carbon is mostly released as methane, because the rotting process is happening in wet soil with little or no supply of oxygen.

Water gathering on top of the permafrost will often lead to increased melting, ground erosion, and canals and holes in the ice. Removal of the topsoil leads to further melting of permafrost. These processes contribute to the self-perpetuating mechanism of more releases of carbon dioxide and methane contributing to the greenhouse gas effect.

UNEP recommends continuous surveillance of areas with permafrost and the significant damages which the melting can do to infrastructure, ecology, indigenous people and to enhancing greenhouse effect.

For further reading:
The EU project: Permafrost and Climate in Europe (PACE),
The Arctic Council, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA),
International Permafrost Association (IPA) IPCC, Special report on The Regional Impacts of Climate Change,  An assessment of Vulnerability, Chapter 3: The Arctic and the Antarctic

Lars Kullerud, Director UArctic,
Svein Tveitdal, Managing Director GRID-Arendal