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“Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet’s future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a statement.

Kevin Schaefer, of the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Data Center, said 1,700 gigatons of permafrost exist. The lead author on the U.N. report, he warns that that melting could permanently amplify what is already a worrisome threat.

“The release of carbon dioxide and methane from warming permafrost is irreversible: once the organic matter thaws and decays away, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost,” Schaefer said.


Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report.