The LexGaze Weekly - DECIPHER

Thawing of the Arctic Permafrost- A cause of concern for all

Shambhavi Shekhar

Issue 7 | August 01, 2020

The Arctic is warming up at an unprecedented rate, causing rapid melting of the ice over the Arctic sea. However, it is not the only cause of concern haunting the polar region. The constant increase is the average global temperature is causing the Arctic permafrost to thaw, i.e, convert to liquid owing to warming up. Permafrost refers to a ground which remains frozen, i.e, either at 0 degree Celsius or even below it, for a minimum period of two years. Apart from containing rocks and soil, the permafrost layers also contains double the amount of organic Carbon than what is in the atmosphere currently, attributable to the rotten plants and other organic matter which are trapped in the ice. Being fixated by ice, decomposition and further release of carbon in the atmosphere does not take place. Moreover, presence of ice helps in regulation of the albedo feedback which is a ‘reflectivity’ measure. It reflects the solar radiation thereby barring absorption and consequent melting of ice-caps. Warming of the Arctic implies depletion of the ice cover leading to more absorption of the solar radiation, which in turn would lead to more warming- therefore creating a vicious cycle! Why should we be concerned? One, thawing of permafrost would mean thawing of the organic substances trapped inside it. Once free, these substances would resume the process of decomposition and release carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere, which are potent greenhouses gases, causing sweeping ramifications. A recent example can be of the town of Verkhoyansk which recorded a temperature of 38 degree Celsius, an unprecedented high for a region which is frozen. Two, it would also release ancient trapped microbes and pathogens having the potential to wreak havoc in terms of diseases. Three, since frozen permafrost is rock solid, quite a lot of villages in the Northern Hemisphere are settled upon it. Thawing would cause an erosion of all those settlements. Needless to say, the fauna inhabiting the region would also be seriously hit. As per an article published in the ‘Yale Environment 360’, an estimated 2.5 million square miles of permafrost — 40 percent of the world’s total — could disappear by the end of the century”. A look at this figure is enough for all of us to understand the threat this problem poses and the dire need for compelling policy measures to reduce global warming and consequently protect the Arctic. It is strange to note it was only in 2018, the IPCC in its report titled Global Warming of 1.5°C, took into account the emissions caused by permafrost. As per the UNEP’s Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost, it might be prudent to prepare a dedicated assessment report on ‘permafrost carbon feedback’, CO2 and CH4 emissions to further policy decisions and treaty negotiations as well.  Countries with permafrost should create ‘permafrost monitoring networks’ within their borders and allocate funds to deal with the degradation and invest in structural techniques to withstand thawing. Special protection should be accorded to the ice- clad Polar Regions under The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 to restore ecological balance. The Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS), made pursuant to UNCLOS accords ocean area lying towards north of the Arctic Circle marine protected area, conferring protection from all forms of exploitation and is open to accession by all UN member States at all times. Individually, inter alia it is time to make rapid changes to reduce carbon footprint, switch to cleaner forms of energy, adhere to sustainable development goals, reducing consumption collectively to safeguard our interconnected future.

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