Thawing permafrost covering almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere could "significantly amplify global warming" at a time when the world is already struggling to reign in rising greenhouse gases, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.
The warning comes as United Nations climate negotiations enter a second day, with the focus on the Kyoto Protocol - a legally-binding emissions cap that expires this year and remains the most significant international achievement in the fight against global warming. Countries are hoping to negotiate an extension to the pact that runs until at least 2020.
The U.N. said the potential hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost has until now not been factored into climate models. It is calling for a special U.N. climate panel to assess the warming and for the creation of "national monitoring networks and adaptation plans" to help better understand the threat.
In the past, land with permafrost experienced thawing on the surface during summertime, but now scientists are witnessing thaws that reach up to 10 feet deep due to warmer temperatures. The softened earth releases gases from decaying plants that have been stuck below frozen ground for millennia.