John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It could also contribute to extreme weather and flooding, say researchers.
Unimaginably vast stores of organic material are locked in the Arctic’s permafrost. But much of it is likely to thaw out as the region rapidly warms, possibly adding huge amounts of methane and CO2 to the fevered atmosphere.
What will the no-longer-permafrost cost the world? Economically speaking, the Great Thaw could stack $43 trillion in damages atop the predicted $326 trillion impact of climate change by 2200, according to scientists writing in Nature Climate Change. That toll includes agricultural disruption and air-conditioning costs. In non-economic terms, they say, widespread melting could adversely affect ecologies and human health.
Researchers at the University of Colorado and University of Cambridge collaborated with the National Snow and Ice Data Center to model the permafrost’s economic consequences by the end of the next century. They believe the release of buried gases could trigger a host of “catastrophic events,” including the “melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, increased flooding, and extreme weather,” they write in a press release:
The researchers' models predict $43 trillion in economic damage could be caused by the release of these greenhouse gases, an amount equivalent to more than half the current annual output of the global economy. This brings the total predicted impact of climate change by 2200 to $369 trillion, up from $326 trillion—an increase of 13 percent.
“These results show just how much we need urgent action to slow the melting of the permafrost in order to minimise the scale of the release of greenhouse gases,” said co-author Dr. Chris Hope from the Cambridge Judge Business School.
If humanity does somehow take that “urgent action” to reduce emissions, the researchers say, it’s possible we could avoid as much as $37 trillion in damages in the decades to come.