Dr. Katey Walter Anthony igniting methane from under the sea ice at a pond beside the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in the Arctic. The methane is trapped in permafrost under sea ice, but as the sea ice melts, the methane is released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. (Photo: Todd Paris, AP)
The COP18 UN Climate Change Talks (http://www.cop18.qa/) just started yesterday and are continuing until December 7, 2012. Countries from around the world are meeting again to try to make progress to reduce global climate change. However, this year, there are many hidden dragons swirling through the corridors at the UN Conference. And by hidden dragons, I'm talking about all the issues that fail to get discussed at the climate talks, the ones that are crucially important, but get hidden from view because we haven't gotten bitten in the arse by them. It's only after we get bitten in the arse (i.e. Hurricane Sandy to New York City) do we open our eyes to the issues.
I want to shine a light on a particularly nasty hidden dragon: the thawing of global permafrost and the effect it will have on the planet.
UNEP published a story on November 27, 2012 titled "Thawing of Permafrost Expected to Cause Significant Additional Global Warming, Not yet Accounted for in Climate Predictions". I recommend reading it.
Why is melting permafrost so important for us to consider right now? Four reasons:
1) Sea ice and permafrost contain methane, and the greenhouse effect of emitting methane is 20 times stronger than CO2. Since methane is really bad for climate change, the idea is to not let methane get into the atmosphere!
2) The sea ice and permafrost which store methane are melting due to current climate change. We are unlocking a natural vault that has been keeping methane from entering the atmosphere for us. Arctic ice holds an estimated 1.2 trillion metric tonnes of methane, 250 times more than in the global atmosphere. Its release would significantly accelerate climate change.
3) The release of methane directly into the atmosphere is already happening. Thousands of vast methane plumes were discovered bubbling to the surface of the ocean off the coast of Eastern Siberia in 2012. Some of them were more than one kilometre in diameter.
4) The current climate negotiations fail to account for melting permafrost in their decision-making. Due to this, we then end up taking even less climate action than the already insufficient action already. How can you work on climate change if you are missing a major factor contributing to climate change? Ill-informed decisions lead to devastating outcomes. Bridges collapse and people die because we ignore stress warnings.
Here is my message to global decision-makers and to all of you out there. We have to pay attention to what is happening with global permafrost (invest in intensive research and monitoring). We need to account for permafrost melt in our decision-making (let's do this quickly), and we need to act to reduce permafrost melt (re-focus on climate mitigation, not just climate adaptation).
Right now we aren't doing any of these things, and that's certainly not in our best interest.