Press releases

Wednesday 07 Feb 2001

Permafrost May Accelerate Global Warming, UNEP Scientists Warn

Nairobi, 7 February 2001 - 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, scientists warned today (WED). An estimated 14 per cent of the world's carbon is stored in Arctic lands. But there is new and emerging evidence that this ancient carbon, locked away in these frozen lands, is starting to be released as rising temperatures cause the permafrost to melt and its organic material to be broken down by bacteria.

Svein Tveitdal, managing director of GRID Arendal in Norway, a UNEP environmental information centre monitoring the melting of the permafrost, told a meeting at the 21st session of the United Nations's Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya today: "Permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, locking away carbon and other greenhouse gases like methane, for thousands of year. 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".

He 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 organisation is UNEP's key Arctic centre, said it was urgent for governments to act to reduce the threat of climate change on the Arctic. He said it was important for nations to implement the targets of a five per cent cut back 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 stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere," said Dr Tveitdal.

He said the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 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, " he said.

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

The threat of climate change to the Arctic and its permafrost will take centre 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 event. 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.

For more information, including copy of the map, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, tel 254 2 623381 or Mobile 0733 632755,
email: nick.nuttal@unep.org,

Tore Brevik, UNEP Spokesman on 254-2-623292
or
Robert Bisset on 254-2-623084,
email: robert.bisset@unep.org

Svein Tveitdal: tel. +47-37035730,
email: svein.tveitdal@grida.no
http://www.grida.no

Maps available:

Permafrost in the Arctic:
http://www.grida.no/inf/news/news01/news09a.htm

Background information map:
http://www.grida.no/prog/polar/ipa/index.htm

http://www.grida.no/prog/polar/ipa/preview2.htm

Please mention UNEP in any articles published. Cuttings should be faxed to UNEP at 254 2 623692 or cpinfo@unep.org

Documentation and press information about the 21st session of the Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at:

http://www.unep.org/GC_21st/

Live coverage of press conferences, special events and some of the conference sessions are also being broadcast live on the web at the above address

 

UNEP News Release 01/16

Background information:
"Impacts of Global Climate Change in the Arctic regions"

Extract from:
Report from a Workshop on the Impacts of Global Change. April 1999, Tromsø, Norway.

International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) 1999

Editors:
Prof. Gunter Weller, BESIS project, IASC
(Center for Global Change and arctic System Research, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks, USA)
and
Prof. Manfred Lange, BESIS project, IASC
(Institut fur Geophysik, Munster, Germany)

Transportation, Energy and Infrastructure

The bearing capacity of permafrost has decreased with warming, resulting in failure of pilings for buildings and pipelines and road beds.

The Arctic is the supplier and source for a large fraction of the non renewable resources for the rest of the world. Siberia, Alaska and North west Canada contain large reserves of liquid and gas petroleum and also vast coal resources. Only a portion of these resources have been discovered, explored or exploited so far.

The predicted effects of climate change on the production, storage and transportation of petroleum, gas and coal, on mining, and on sea and land transportation have important implications, both negatively and positively, for the global economy.

Energy production by means of hydroelectric systems, fossil fuel, and other less-standard techniques, and impacts on the infrastructure of power generation, and on transportation will be affected by changes in the seasonal temperatures, precipitation, wind and solar radiation, and by glacial melt, permafrost thawing, river flow, and snow accumulation.

Climate effects on the river systems, port facilities, and hindrances or improvements in ocean transportation (e.g., reduction in sea ice thickness and extent) will have vital impacts on the regional energy needs, as well as transportation of materials both into and out of the Arctic.

The following impacts have been observed in recent years:

  • The bearing capacity of permafrost has decreased with warming, resulting in failure of pilings for buildings and pipelines, and road beds (-)
  • Accelerated permafrost thawing has led to costly increases in road damage and maintenance. In Alaska, for example, it costs up to $US 1.5 million to replace 1 km of road system(-)
  • Increased slope instability, landslides and erosion have occurred in thawing permafrost terrain in the Mackenzie Basin, threatening roads and bridges, and causing local floods (-)
  • The disappearance of permafrost reduces construction problems in the long run, however; in sorne areas permafrost boundaries may have moved north by perhaps as much as 100 km in the last century (+)
  • Reductions in sea ice extent and thickness have allowed easier access to villages and industrial installations in some regions of the Arctic (e.g., Bering Sea) (+)

Other impacts likely to occur if climate warming continues include:

  • Ice and snow roads are frequently used by the oil industry to reduce environmental damage to the tundra, but future ice roads may not be thick enough or last long enough
  • Power outages due to more severe winter snow storms could lead to threats to human life and safety, as well as increased repair costs (-)
  • Ship and barge traffic on rivers and in the ocean will benefit from a longer ice-free season and thinner ice (+)
  • Rough seas and turbulence, decreased visibility due to fog, and increased superstructure icing on ships will make ocean-going activities more hazardous (-)
  • Higher temperatures will lead to cost savings in power generation in remote arctic towns and villages (+)

Permafrost problems again deserve some special attention. There is great concern that the impact of global warming on permafrost and reduction of permafrost bearing capacity can exceed the safety factor, which is incorporated in the design of existing structures.

As an example, the estimated impact of temperature increase on soil bearing capacity for Yakutsk, Russia is shown in the Table 7 (due to Khroustalev, 1999). Comparison of temperature data in Table 7 and temperature increases predicted by different scenarios of global warming shows that warming will be a very important factor in reducing the bearing capacity of permafrost soil in the nearest future. This factor also has to be taken into account by engineers in present designs.

Table 7. Decrease of bearing capacity of frozen
the soil at the base of the pile foundations as a
function of soil temperature (Yakutsk, Russia).

 
Decrease of Bearing Capacity %
Increase of Soil
Temperature(oC)
Under buildings
Under pipelines and power lines
0.0
0.0
0.0
0.5
7
9
1.0
15
19
1.5
23
31
2.0
50
63

Khroustalev (1999) analyzed the potential failure of 5-story apartment buildings constructed in the Russian Arctic during 1950-1990. The temperature trend was assumed to be equal to 0.075 oC/year and the analysis shows that the lifetime of buildings will be much shorter than was expected and numerous building will collapse (Table 8).

According to this analysis (Table 8), most of the apartment buildings constructed between 1950 and 1990 will be severely affected as a result of global climate change weakening their foundations.In Tiksi and Yakutsk and cities with similar conditions, the entire infrastructure can be lost by 2030 if protective measures are not taken soon.

Table 8. Percent of apartment buildings for which failure is predicted

 
Year of Failure
City, Year of
Construction
1990
2000
2010
2020
2030
 
 
Vorkuta
 
 
 
 
 
1950
10
18
39
44
60
1960
9
17
31
43
60
1970
7
15
29
42
59
1980
3
12
26
40
57
1990
0
9
24
38
56
Tiksi
 
1950
9
23
63
90
98
1960
7
20
62
90
98
1970
4
18
61
90
98
1980
2
16
60
90
98
1990
0
14
60
90
97
Yakutsk
 
1950
8
28
72
94
100
1960
6
27
72
94
100
1970
4
25
71
94
100
1980
2
24
71
94
100
1990
0
22
70
94
100

.

Numerous deformations of buildings are already typical for many cities in the Russian Arctic. For example, about 250 of the 5-12 story apartment buildings are damaged in Norilsk; 100 of them need repair. In Yakutsk there are 300 buildings in a similar state. It is likely that climate change is the main cause of the damage to these buildings.

 

Further reading and scientific contacts:

Arctic Environmental atlas
http://maps.grida.no/scripts/esrimap.dll?name=arctic&cmd=map

International Permafrost Association
http://www.geodata.soton.ac.uk/ipa/

 

 

 

 

Last updated 9 February by Åke Bjørke

Wednesday 07 Feb 2001
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