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Colorado's climate connection
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Colorado's climate connection

Boulder-based researchers focus on Doha global warming talks

The COP 18 climate talks are under way in Doha, Qatar. Photo courtesy NASA.
The COP 18 climate talks are under way in Doha, Qatar. Photo courtesy NASA.
BOULDER—Against a backdrop of a record-hot, near-record drought and what looks to be the start of another dry winter, several Colorado-based scientists have set their sights on the latest round of climate talks getting under way this week in Doha, Qatar.

Boulder-based Kevin Schaefer, a researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, is focusing on the potential perils of melting permafrost, which could release untold amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Schaefer co-authored a report for the United Nations Environmental Programme calling on policy makers to assess the impact of permafrost carbon dioxide and methane emissions in the negotiation of emissions targets and global climate change policy discussions.

The report was released today (Nov. 27), just as science advisers and technical experts are laying the groundwork for next week's nitty gritty negotiations at the COP 18 talks in Doha.

With emperatures in polar regions rising twice as fast as the global average, there’s a good chance that between 30 to 85 percent of near-surface permafrost could melt, releasing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of the century.

But most existing climate models don’t accurately account for the impact of permafrost carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

"We need more monitoring to validate our data. "That's one of the primary drivers - that wide range represents a huge uncertainty. For governments to be able to act, we need more data," Schaefer said.

Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop immediately, it would take the permafrost at least 20 to 30 years to respond, Schaefer said, explaining that the permafrost ecosystem is slow to respond to climate changes.

Permafrost is ground that stays frozen for at least two years in a row and occurs in about a quarter of the land surface in the Northern Hemisphere. Earth’s permafrost contains 1,700 gigatons of carbon as frozen organic matter, twice that currently in the atmosphere, according to the report. If this organic matter thaws and begins to decay, the resulting carbon dioxide and methane emissions will amplify global warming.

Along with greenhouse gas emissions, melting permafrost also results in other impacts. In Colorado, researchers recently traced an increase in metals pollution in the Snake River, near Keystone, to melting permafrost near the river's headwaters. As the frozen ground melts, more water percolates through the mineral rich soil, elevating levels of fish-killing metals beyond the already high concentrations that exceed Clean Water Act standards.

In European mountain regions, some ski area operators have faced technical challenges, the ground beneath some ski lift installations literally melts away.

“Individual nations need to evaluate the risks of thawing permafrost and make plans to protect communities in the most vulnerable regions,” Schaefer said. Homes, businesses, and other infrastructure in the far north were built on ground that stayed frozen, and may collapse if this ground thaws.

“The release of carbon dioxide and methane from warming permafrost is irreversible: once the organic matter thaws and decays away, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost,” Schaefer said. “Anthropogenic emissions targets in the climate change treaty need to account for these emissions or we risk overshooting the 2 degrees Celsius maximum warming target,” he added.

“Permafrost emissions could ultimately account for up to 39 percent of total emissions,” Schaefer said. “This must be factored in to treaty negotiations expected to replace the Kyoto Protocol."

One of the goals at the Doha talks is to make progress toward a new global treaty, to take effect in 2015, that would meaningfully cap greenhouse gas emissions.

But whether or not the negotiators can do that is still up in the air according to Max Boykoff, another Colorado researcher who recently studied the climate negotiation process.

According to Boykoff and his co-authors, large delegations from rich countries and a cumbersome decision-making process are hindering progress at the United Nations’ annual climate talks, according to research published last week by University of East Anglia and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The report was timed to precede the 18th UN Climate Change Summit, which starts Nov. 26 in Doha, Qatar. The findings suggest that delegations from some countries have increased in size over the years, while others have decreased, limiting poor countries’ negotiating power and making their participation less effective.

“The UN must recognize that these antiquated structures serve to constrain rather than compel co-operation on international climate policy,” said Dr. Helke Schroeder, with the University of East Anglia’s School of International Development. “The time is long overdue for changes to institutions and structures that do not support decision-making and agreements.”

The researchers recommend that countries consider capping delegation numbers at a level that allows broad representation across government departments and sectors of society, while maintaining a manageable overall size.
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