Degrading permafrost can alter ecosystems, damage infrastructure, and release enough carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to influence global climate. The permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) is the amplification of surface warming due to CO2 and CH4 emissions from thawing permafrost. An analysis of available estimates PCF strength and timing indicate 120α85 Gt of carbon emissions from thawing permafrost by 2100. This is equivalent to 5.7α4.0% of total anthropogenic emissions for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5 scenario and would increase global temperatures by 0.29α0.21 °C or 7.8α5.7%. For RCP4.5, the scenario closest to the 2 °C warming target for the climate change treaty, the range of cumulative emissions in 2100 from thawing permafrost decreases to between 27 and 100 Gt C with temperature increases between 0.05 and 0.15 °C, but the relative fraction of permafrost to total emissions increases to between 3% and 11%. Any substantial warming results in a committed, long-term carbon release from thawing permafrost with 60% of emissions occurring after 2100, indicating that not accounting for permafrost emissions risks overshooting the 2 °C warming target. Climate projections in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), and any emissions targets based on those projections, do not adequately account for emissions from thawing permafrost and the effects of the PCF on global climate. We recommend the IPCC commission a special assessment focusing on the PCF and its impact on global climate to supplement the AR5 in support of treaty negotiation.
- global climate
- permafrost carbon feedback
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
- Environmental Science(all)
- Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health