NAIROBI - Greenhouse gases that have been locked safely in the Arctic's permafrost for millennia are now being released because of global warming, scientists warned here Wednesday.
"Global warming may be set to accelerate as rising temperatures in the Arctic melt the permafrost causing it to release greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a statement released during a week-long meeting here of more than 80 environment ministers from around the world.
"The Arctic is an area where the climate changes are going to cause tremendous problems," wrote Svein Tveitdal, who heads a UNEP research centre observing the permafrost in Arendal, Norway.
View of the conference room of the United Nations in Nairobi Monday Feb. 5, 2001, for the opening of a week-long meeting of policy planners and environment ministers. The meeting will address the effects of global warming and other environmental threats. (AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju)
An estimated 14 percent of the world's carbon is stored in Arctic lands.
"Permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, locking away carbon and other greenhouse gases like methane, for thousands of years.
"But there is 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," explained Tveitdal, adding that his team's findings were not yet conclusive.
The permafrost is that part of the Earth's surface, some 20 percent of it, in the Arctic and Antarctic that is permanently frozen, sometimes to depths of up to 1,000 metres (3,000 feet.)
The most alarming -- and as yet unproven -- theories emerge from studies carried out in Alaska, which is partly covered by permafrost, and suggest temperatures in some parts of the Arctic will rise by 10 degrees Celsius before the end of the 21st century.
The scientific journal Nature recently reported the findings of a British team of researchers who said that the warming of frozen parts of the earth would release some 455 gigatonnes of trapped carbon gases, which would have serious consequences for global warming.
For Tveidtal, serious damage suffered recently by buildings, roads, bridges and pipe-lines in Alaska and Siberai are proof positive that the ice-cap is melting.
This is why UNEP is using the example of the permafrost to press home its message about the imperative need for speedy ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
This international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emmisions by 12 percent has yet to be implemented. The latest talks on the issue, held in the Hague in November, ended without resolution.
UNEP's Nairobi meeting, which brings together more than 80 environment ministers from around the world, comes in the wake of the release of a report compiled by thousands of scientists across the world that predicted average temperatures across the world could climb by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Centigrade over the coming century.
In a related report released at the weekend, the agency said the annual costs of the effects of global warming could top 300 billion dollars 50 years from now if action is not taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
That would constitute a 750 percent increase on today's costs of global warming, and would cost some low-lying states more than 10 percent of their national wealth.
Copyright © 2001 AFP