The Heat Is Online

Permafrost Turning Into Carbon Source

Melting Arctic Permafrost May Accelerate Global Warming

By Cat Lazaroff

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 7, 2001 (ENS) - Global warming may be set to accelerate as rising temperatures in the Arctic melt the permafrost causing it to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a United Nations scientist warned today. An estimated 14 per cent of the world's carbon is stored in Arctic lands.

Svein Tveitdal, director of a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) center in Norway that monitors the region, reported that rising Arctic temperatures are melting the solid structure of frozen soil known as permafrost and releasing heat trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"Permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, locking away carbon and other greenhouse gases like methane, for thousands of years," Tveitdal told a meeting of the United Nation's Governing Council in Nairobi. "But there is now evidence that this is no longer the case, and the permafrost in some areas is starting to give back its carbon. This could accelerate the greenhouse effect."

Rising temperatures are now causing the permafrost to melt, and its organic material to be broken down by bacteria, releasing this ancient carbon.

Tveitdal said there were already impacts on roads, buildings, pipelines and other infrastructure occurring in Arctic areas like Alaska and Siberia as result of the recent decades of climate change. Permafrost, which is a solid structure of frozen soil, can be an ideal terrain on which to build.

But rising temperatures can turn it into a soft, slurry like material which can trigger subsidence and damage to buildings and structures.

Studies by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks indicate that a change in permafrost temperature of minus four degrees Centigrade to minus one degree Centigrade decreases the load capacity of permafrost by as much as 70 per cent. In some parts of Siberia homes and buildings are already suffering as a result with cracks and other fractures appearing.

Dr Tveitdal, whose organization is UNEP's key Arctic center, said it was urgent for governments to act to reduce the threat of climate change on the Arctic. In particular, Tveitdal urged that nations implement the targets of a five percent cutback in greenhouse gases, agreed to in Kyoto in 1997, as a first step.

"The political response at the moment is far slower than the estimated rate of climate change this century. Even with the Kyoto targets, we are far away from reducing emissions by the 60 per cent to 70 per cent researchers suggest is necessary to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere," warned Tveitdal.

The UNEP scientist said the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last month, had added new urgency. The IPCC's scientists now estimate that temperatures this century may rise by up to 5.8 degrees C.

"In some areas like the Arctic you might have up to 10 degrees C this century," of warming, said Tveitdal.

UNEP believes that it is inevitable that countries in the Arctic will have to adapt to the impacts of global warming. Crucial to this will be good monitoring of the way the permafrost is responding to rising temperatures, Tveitdal said.

Tveitdal's center, GRID Arendal, has produced interactive maps, illustrating the current extent of permafrost in blue, which will act as a baseline from which scientists and policy makers can track the melting and shrinking of the Arctic's frozen soils.

"I do not think it is radical to say that the map will become progressively less blue in the coming years," Tveitdal predicted.

The threat of climate change to the Arctic and its permafrost will take center stage at the Arctic Council meeting of ministers taking place in Finland in June. Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director, is expected to attend this crucial meeting.

UNEP scientists fear the melting of the permafrost and the disruption caused may also have important impacts on the wildlife, such as the reindeer, and the traditional lifestyle indigenous people living there. An estimated 200,000 indigenous people, drawn from 30 ethnic groups, are represented in Arctic Russia alone.

Tveitdal said that it was urgent for governments to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the Arctic.

The threat of climate change to the Arctic and its permafrost will be the main topic at the Arctic Council meeting of ministers scheduled for June in Finland.

The maps are available at:, and

Documentation from the 21st session of the Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at:

U.N. Warns Global Warming Is Melting Arctic Soil
Reuters News Service
, Feb. 7, 2001

NAIROBI (Reuters) - U.N. scientists said Wednesday that global warming was melting the Arctic's permafrost, causing it to release greenhouse gases that could in turn raise temperatures even higher.

"This is very alarming," said Svein Tveidtal, a prominent scientist with the United Nations Environment Program. "The Arctic is an area where temperature changes are going to cause tremendous problems."

The vicious cycle could accelerate the so-called greenhouse effect and lead to the disintegration of the permafrost, causing serious damage to buildings, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure in Arctic areas like Alaska and Siberia.

Permafrost is land that stays frozen throughout the year and there are vast expanses of it in the Antarctic and the northernmost Arctic.

For thousands of years, the permafrost has mopped up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stored it in its soil, mainly because the decomposition of dead vegetation is extremely slow in such low temperatures.

However, with rising temperatures in the Arctic, microbes decompose dead plant matter at a higher rate, releasing carbon dioxide that then adds to the problem of global warming.

U.N. scientists say the vicious cycle appears to have already begun.

"There are indications that at least some parts of the Arctic have switched from being sinks of carbon dioxide to being sources," scientists monitoring the melting of the permafrost said in a recent report.

Tveidtal conceded that investigations were still at a very early stage but the consequences of global warming on the Arctic permafrost were serious, not just for the environment but also for human settlements.

Rising temperatures can turn the permafrost from a solid structure of frozen soil into a soft, slurry-like material which can lead to subsidence and damage to buildings and structures.

Tveidtal said the problems might also have a significant impact on Arctic wildlife such as its reindeer populations and the traditional lifestyles of indigenous people. Some 200,000 indigenous people live in Arctic Russia alone.