The Big Thaw: Are we prepared?

The warming of the Arctic’s permafrost will have serious implications for global emissions, yet why is the issue so poorly represented in the COP26 process? Green Peer Jenny Jones outlines the problem we are facing.

Icebergs in Arctic
Jenny Jones

Imagine a whole new country emerging in the icy north and producing the current UK level of emissions for the next 53 years. That is the equivalent of what will be happening to the Arctic region’s permafrost as it thaws between now and 2100. In fact, that’s the lower end prediction. If we don’t cut world emissions by almost half in the next eight years (Vote Green everyone), then these permafrost emissions will rise further and faster. Given the failure of COP26, it seems more likely that we have to imagine a country producing the same greenhouse gases as China for the next 33 years.

What I find surprising is that what is currently happening in the Arctic region is having so little impact on the COP26 process and the calculation of the world's carbon budget. Yet, the permafrost is a perfect mirror of our actions. If we produce more emissions, then the permafrost produces more emissions. The warmer it gets, the warmer it is going to get. Even if we stop by 2050, the permafrost is going to keep on melting and releasing carbon for a long while afterwards. Politicians may talk about net-zero, but none of them has included the big thaw in their calculations.

In the worst-case scenario, where the world has weak climate policies, it could be 550 giga-tonnes (GT) of CO2 equivalent. To put that in perspective, the world currently produces 40 GT of CO2 annually. To save you reaching for your calculators, that's roughly 13 years' worth of what humanity currently produces, and what we produce is already way too much.

Of course, there are big questions about the timescale for this thawing. The current COP calculator has a gradual and even rise, but the planet rarely works like that. Studies of the big wildfires in Siberia during 2019 showed that the rate of thawing could triple as the burning vegetation on top of the tundra warmed the frozen, dead vegetation below the ground.

This is developing science and the estimates of CO2 release vary tremendously, but it appears very similar to the study of melting ice. In 2007, the UN reports on climate change didn’t feature melting ice as a significant factor in sea level rises. Every report since then has seen an escalation of the worst-case scenario, and that escalation is likely to continue as the scientific evidence runs to keep pace with what is actually happening on the ground – or below it.

The huge expanse of Canada is 40 per cent permafrost and the impacts on its infrastructure (pipes, roads, bridges, homes) of the ground melting under their feet are going to be massive. The north of Canada, like Siberia and the rest of the Arctic region, is now warming three times faster than the rest of the world. That means the pace of the permafrost thaw is accelerating faster than we might think it would, and the world we know is most definitely not the same world our children will inherit.

The last time that there was this much carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere, there was a forest of trees on Greenland packed full of creatures. There was no big glacier covering the land and the sea level was 70 feet higher.

Without urgent action and changes to lifestyle, not just technology, the process of warming and thawing will be too far gone to put into reverse. We need to face facts and act on them. Recognising the huge potential impact of the big thaw is one of the crucial steps.