The Big Melt: Policy Recommendations on Melting Permafrost

by Franke James

ARCTIC PERMAFROST: Video: Unboxed Media

November 27, 2012 – Today, the United Nations Environment Programme released a report on the melting permafrost. It warns of the dangerous climate change that may result from melting permafrost — and the news is ricocheting around the world.

The report gives explicit recommendations to the countries with the most permafrost — Canada, the United States, China and Russia — to¬†address the potential economic, social and environmental impacts of permafrost degradation in a warming climate.

“Thawing permafrost represents a dramatic physical change with huge impacts to ecosystems and human infrastructure,” said ¬†lead author Kevin Schaefer, from the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Individual nations need to develop plans to evaluate the risks, costs, and mitigation strategies to protect human infrastructure in permafrost regions most vulnerable to thaw.”

UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner explains, “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. Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long,” he added. “This report seeks to communicate to climate-treaty negotiators, policy makers and the general public the implications of continuing to ignore the challenges of warming permafrost.”

The report also noted that thawing permafrost is structurally weak, resulting in foundational settling that can damage or even destroy buildings, roads, pipelines, railways and power lines. 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.

Thawing of Permafrost Expected to Cause Significant Additional Global Warming, Not yet Accounted for in Climate Predictions

UNEP Recommendations

The report issues the following specific policy recommendations to address the potential economic, social and environmental impacts of permafrost degradation in a warming climate:

Commission a Special Report on Permafrost Emissions:
The IPCC may consider preparing a special assessment report on how carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost would influence global climate to support climate change policy discussions and treaty negotiations.
Create National Permafrost Monitoring Networks:
To adequately monitor permafrost, individual countries may consider taking over operation of monitoring sites within their borders, increasing funding, standardizing the measurements and expanding coverage. This applies particularly to countries with the most permafrost: Russia, Canada, China and the United States. The International Permafrost Association should continue to coordinate development and the national networks should remain part of the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost.
Plan for Adaptation:
Nations with substantial permafrost, such as those mentioned above, may consider evaluating the potential risks, damage and costs of permafrost degradation to critical infrastructure. Most nations currently do not have such plans, which will help policy makers, national planners and scientists quantify costs and risks associated with permafrost degradation.

Link to UNEP report

The full report can be downloaded here:


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