Why melting permafrost could cost $43 trillion

It may take trillions of dollars to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from thawing Arctic permafrost.

John McConnico/AP/File
An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle Tuesday Aug, 16, 2005. Scientists say that global warming has an increasing effect on the Arctic region with glaciers shrinking, temperatures of the arctic waters warming, and permafrost softening.

Arctic permafrost traps much of the world’s carbon dioxide and methane below the Earth’s surface. But as Arctic temperatures rise, that frozen soil may not be able to hold all that gas for much longer.

Those increased emissions could cost us big. As the permafrost melts, the greenhouse gases released could lead to $43 trillion worth of economic damage by 2200, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Colorado.

That’s over $230 billion each year, or $26.5 million each hour.

A letter published in Nature Climate Change on Monday, describes how melting permafrost alone increases the predicted economic impact by 13 percent, raising the price tag by 2200 from $326 trillion to $369 trillion. 

The researchers first calculated the rate at which thawing permafrost might release the greenhouse gases. Then, from that increase in emissions, they evaluated the cost to mitigate the effects of the additional greenhouse gases. 

Direct economic impacts include agricultural losses or increased air conditioning energy use. Indirect impacts include those on public health, ecosystems, the effects of rising seas and more frequent natural disasters. 

“The impacts will be felt around the world,” study co-author Chris Hope of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School said in an email to the Monitor.

The Arctic receives significant attention in climate change conversations, as people see ice sheets melting into the world’s oceans from rising global temperatures. But permafrost, hidden under the surface of the Earth, holds deep problems.

Permafrost, frozen organic matter in the soil, holds about 1,700 gigatons, or 1.7 trillion tons, of carbon. As the permafrost melts, it will release the carbon into the atmosphere, mostly as carbon dioxide but also as methane gas. 

“Thawing permafrost is likely to be one of the major consequences of the changes in the Arctic climate,” Dr. Hope said in his email.

Why put a price on permafrost melt?

Calculating the economic impact can actually help, said Hope. “We can then include it in the risk-benefit calculations that are performed when trying to decide what to do about climate change.”

Hope and his colleagues also look on the bright side. In the paper, they examine what the economic impact could be if “aggressive” efforts are put in place to reduce emissions. 

The policy they apply helps a lot. “It reduces the mean impacts of thawing permafrost from $43 trillion to $6 trillion,” said Hope. “We can do quite a lot if we have the will.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.