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Surprising Science

Accelerating Permafrost Melt Poses Significant Environmental Risks

A new UN report warns that if thawing continues as expected, major ecosystems will be impacted and large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

What’s the Latest Development?

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report yesterday warning of increasingly serious threats posed by the thawing of permafrost covering nearly a quarter of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. These include the release of large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, ecosystem disturbances due to ground degradation, and damage to existing infrastructure in the region, requiring expensive repairs. Current estimates of rising global temperatures indicate a substantial and irreversible loss of permafrost by 2100.

What’s the Big Idea?

Although there are many different types of research involving the changing environment, not enough attention has been paid to the potential impact resulting from a loss of permafrost. According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, “Permafrost…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.” Among the policy recommendations provided were the commissioning of a special assessment report on permafrost gas emissions’ impact on climate change and the close monitoring of permafrost regions in affected countries, particularly Russia, China, Canada, and the US.

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