Climate: Another warning on permafrost ‘tipping point’

Melting permafrost could trigger a massive surge in global greenhouse gas emissions.

‘The real and imminent threat posed by permafrost thawing must be communicated clearly and broadly to the general public and the policy community’

Staff Report

FRISCO — Policy makers should pay more attention to the potential to the potential for greenhouse gas emissions from melting permafrost, a team of researchers warned in a special bulletin, released as President Obama prepares to attend an international conference on the Arctic.

Arctic permafrost – ground that has been frozen for many thousands of years – is thawing, and the results could be disastrous and irreversible, potentially triggering a spiral of global warming far beyond any of the scenarios currently envisioned, a team of scientists with the Woods Hole Research Center wrote in a policy brief.“The release of greenhouse gases resulting from thawing Arctic permafrost could have catastrophic global consequences,” said Dr. Max Holmes, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center who has been advising State Department officials on the problem.

Thawing permafrost releases heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. “This potentially unstoppable and self-reinforcing cycle could lead to a “calamitous tipping point,” scientists said.

Scientists have also measured rapidly melting permafrost in Antarctica, and there have been efforts to quantify the emissions that could be triggered globally by melting permafrost. But many scientists think that those emissions have been underestimated by most global climate models.

“The United States must lead a large-scale effort to find the tipping point – at what level of warming will the cycle of warming and permafrost thawing become impossible to stop,” said Dr. Holmes. “The real and imminent threat posed by permafrost thawing must be communicated clearly and broadly to the general public and the policy community.”

Reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is the main thing, but the WHRC scientists have also advised the U.S. State Department that controlling black carbon-based sooty particles that darken snow and speed Arctic warming could be an important short-term tool to limit permafrost melting.

“Despite the importance and urgency of this problem, until now it has received little attention from policymakers,” said WHRC scientist Dr. Sue Natali.

A study published earlier this year by Dr. Natali and WHRC scientists estimated that greenhouse gases released from thawing permafrost could make it much more difficult to meet the widely held goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The key science points, implications and recommendations can be found in the WHRC Policy Brief, “Permafrost and Global Climate Change.”


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