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Gaps in models and goals

This article identifies some of the gaps of where permafrost emissions are left out of global climate models and targets.
An eddy flux tower stands in the tundra in a patch of snow, next to the solar panels powering it.
© Jacqueline Hung

Despite scientists’ efforts, gaps in Arctic carbon monitoring and modeling of permafrost thaw are limiting our ability to address the climate crisis.

These gaps create uncertainties in our estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potential miscalculations for global emissions targets and climate projections.

There is currently no integrated, strategic approach to accurately track and predict carbon emissions from thawing permafrost. Serious monitoring gaps persist across the Arctic because field data collection in these environments is challenging. 80% of Arctic lands are not covered by the current year-round carbon dioxide and methane monitoring sites. Moreover, because no one country or entity is responsible for monitoring permafrost, scientific research across the Arctic has not been strategically coordinated or sufficiently funded.

These monitoring gaps create uncertainty about the amount and timing of permafrost thaw emissions. Because of this, most global models do not even include permafrost carbon, and those that do don’t account for sudden and increasingly common environmental disturbances like wildfire and abrupt thaw. This means that permafrost carbon emissions are severely underrepresented.[1]

Current eddy covariance towers measuring both CO2 and CH4 fluxes year-round can be seen in blue. Map by: Greg Fiske

Despite the magnitude of the potential threat from permafrost emissions, the large uncertainties in emissions estimates and the omission of permafrost from models results in international climate assessments and related policy recommendations—including the 2021 Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—underrepresenting expected permafrost emissions or ignoring them altogether.

As a result, permafrost emissions are not fully counted in global carbon budgets and have been left out of climate policy. If you remember from Week 3, that is essentially the same as ignoring an entire country’s emissions when making our climate plans for the future.

Potential cumulative permafrost carbon emissions (Gt CO2) by 2100 compared to some of the world’s largest fossil fuel emitting nations, if their current emissions rates continue through the end of the century. Neglecting permafrost is equivalent to excluding a major world economy from global climate policy. Data from Schuur et al. 2015, the Union of Concerned Scientists for 2019.

These omissions put us at risk of miscalculating how aggressively we must curb emissions to meet internationally agreed-upon limits, and hinder our ability to develop informed adaptation strategies to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.[2]


1Natali, S., Bronen, R., Cochran, P., Holdren, J., Rogers, B. and Treharne, R., 2022. Incorporating permafrost into climate mitigation and adaptation policy. Environmental Research Letters,.

2Abbott, B., Brown, M., Carey, J., Ernakovich, J., Frederick, J., Guo, L., Hugelius, G., Lee, et al., 2022. We Must Stop Fossil Fuel Emissions to Protect Permafrost Ecosystems. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 10.

© Woodwell Climate Research Center
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Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

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