Climate Change: Siberia’s Melting Permafrost

The news comes as scientists reported that the long-frozen region is already shifting to an entirely new climate regime, marked by escalating trends in ice melt, temperature rise and rainfall days. The new research was published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change on September 14, 2020 which hypothesizes:

  • A big chunk of Greenland’s ice cap, estimated to be some 110 square kilometers, has broken off in the far north east Arctic, which scientists say is evidence of rapid climate change.

After months of record temperatures, scientists say Greenland’s ice sheet experienced its biggest melt of the summer on Thursday, losing 11 billion tons of surface ice to the ocean — equivalent to 4.4 million Olympic swimming pools.

GREENLAND’S ICE SHEET JUST LOST 11 BILLION TONS OF ICE Source: cnn.com

It is no secret that the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet and the permafrost soils that is thousands of years old found on the Arctic coasts of Canada, Russia, and Alaska which are increasingly eroding away due to the effects of waves and river currents—especially because the warm season there is steadily growing longer. As experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) have determined, this thawing has now taken on enormous proportions. By conducting a detailed analysis of historical satellite images from Siberia, Matthias Fuchs and his team were able to show that:

ARCTIC ICE Source: vox.com
  • Permafrost erosion in the Lena Delta has steadily worsened since the 1960s;
  • Whereas in the 1960s the river, at a width of ca. 1.7 kilometers, gnawed away an average of five meters of land per year, between 2015 and 2018 that number rose to nearly 16 meters; and
  • In total the banks—more in some places, less in others—lost between 322 and 679 meters from 1965 to 2018.
MELTING PERMAFROST TO WORSEN CRISES Source: thedailystar.net

It was reported that Siberia has been experiencing abnormally high temperatures for several months and the region saw an early start to summer during which a staggering measurement of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit recorded on Saturday, June 2020 in the small town of Verkhoyansk, according to Russian weather data that has yet to be verified.

A two-story residential building broke apart as layers of permafrost thawed during a summer heatwave in Yakutsk, Russia—often referred to as the “world’s coldest city.”

YAKUSK CITY Source: lifestyle.alexandalexa.com

Amber Soja, from NASA’s Langley Research Center, told Newsweek: “The change of landscape tremendously affects any kind of buildings or roads or structure that you have,”

Winter temperatures in Yakutsk, in east Siberia, regularly plummet to below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with the record low standing at minus 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scientists cited that the craters may be emerging because the frozen ground, or “Permafrost”, that covers much of Siberia has been thawing due to climate change, allowing methane gases trapped underground to build up and explode.

Siberia’s Melting Permafrost Source: Aljazeera

According to NASA Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen—32°F (0°C) or colder—for at least two years straight. These permanently frozen grounds are most common in regions with high mountains and in Earth’s higher latitudes—near the North and South Poles.

Siberian Permafrost has been for 7000 years Source: WUWT

Permafrost covers large regions of the Earth. Almost a quarter of the land area in the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost underneath. Although the ground is frozen, permafrost regions are not always covered in snow.

Global warming is inflicting wounds across Siberia:

  • Outbursts of pent-up methane gas in thawing permafrost have pocked Russia’s desolate Yamal and Gydan peninsulas with holes tens of meters across;
  • Apartment buildings are listing and collapsing on the unsteady ground, causing about $2 billion of damage per year to the Russian economy; and
  • Forest fires during the past three summers have torched millions of hectares across Siberia, blanketing the land with dark soot and charcoal that absorb heat and accelerate melting.
THAWING PERMAFROST IS TRIGGERING THOUSANDS OF LANDSLIDES Source: chinadialogue.net

Intensifying this year’s fires was a heat wave that baked Siberia for the first half of 2020. On 20 June, the town of Verkhoyansk, just 75 kilometers from Batagay and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, reached 38°C, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. The record-breaking heat “would have been effectively impossible without human-induced climate change,” said the authors of a 15 July study by World Weather Attribution, a collaboration of meteorologists who analyze the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events.

FAR-NORTH PERMAFROST CLIFF IS ONE OF A KIND Source: gi.alaska.edu

The cliff’s permafrost, which is ca. 50,000 years old and formed during the last Ice Age, consists of 88 percent ice. The remainder is mainly peat, silt and sand. Especially the peat, which consists of partially decomposed ancient mosses and sedges, contains a great amount of carbon and nitrogen, formerly stored in the plants. The AWI experts collected soil samples on site and then analyzed their carbon and nitrogen content in the lab:

  • It’s amazing that the Sobo-Sise Cliff contains so much organic material, even though it’s predominantly composed of ice. On average, we find roughly 26 kilograms of carbon and two kilograms of nitrogen per cubic meter.
SOBO-SISE CLIFF Source: polarjournal.ch

According to Mathias Fuchs from AWI:

  • Carbon and nitrogen are important nutrients for microorganisms.

The fact of the matter is that carbon and nitrogen are released every year by erosion.  Fuchs explains:

  • Due to the erosion and thawing of permafrost, microorganisms now enjoy access to both.

And this can have a number of consequences. When the microbes break down the carbon, they release carbon dioxide—just like humans do when they breathe. When that happens, the loss of permafrost worsens the greenhouse effect by re-mobilizing’ carbon that was previously stored away. In addition, the intensive input of carbon and nitrogen in the Lena River is changing the nutrient supply in its waters. Consequently:

WORLD’S LARGEST PERMAFROST RIVER (LENA) DRIES TO RECORD LOW Source: siberiantimes.com
  • This could significantly influence, or even transform, the river’s natural food webs.

Unfortunately, the researchers can’t yet say precisely what the consequences will be. To do so, in future studies they’ll need to examine the nutrient flows in, and the biology of, the Lena River in more detail. But with their latest efforts and their assessment of the permafrost erosion, which has just been published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science, the AWI experts have provided an important basis for additional investigations.

Kanata, Ontario, Canada 8 October 2020