Bubbling up: How the thawing out of Siberian permafrost spells trouble for curbing climatic meltdown

Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

With both scientific and media discourse dominated by talk of global warming, permafrost is a reminder that we are still transitioning out of an ice age that has shaped life on this planet for the past two and a half million years. Consisting primarily of a frozen mixture of frozen earth, peat, methane and water, global permafrost reservoirs contain more than quadruple the carbon that has ever been released anthropogenically. Northern hemisphere permafrost contains more carbon than is found in all currently living things. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that if this carbon was ever released into the atmosphere, the intensified greenhouse effect would drastically accelerate global warming, helping to transform our planet beyond recognition and threatening our species’ survival.

The effects of global warming have not been uniformly distributed, with arctic regions like Siberia warming approximately four times more than the global average over the past 40 years, an incredible 3°C rise. Troublingly, signs of carbon release from permafrost thawing in this region are already myriad. The most recent headline-grabber, bubbles of methane metres wide that have plagued the topsoil of the remote island of Belyy, is worrying researchers. When popped, they found the bubbles contained high concentrations of the major greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. This phenomenon is not limited to remote northern islands. Other dramatic symptoms of perishing permafrost have also recently sprung up in Siberia, such as the emergence of a giant 30m-wide crater on the Yamal peninsula in 2014 after a pocket of methane burst, and the recent presence of a fissure in Batagaika that is currently growing at over 18m a year. Locals call it “a gateway to the underworld”. Away from the tangible boils, bruises and scars in the Siberian landscape, thermokarst lakes, pools of water that constitute a defining feature of permafrost, are both expanding and spewing out more carbon into the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

This doesn’t bode well for those tasked with containing the impact of climate change. The future is set to create hundreds of millions of ‘climate migrants’, populations whose homes and lives will become unviable due to climate change. Much focus in this area has been directed towards the disastrous effects that global warming-induced sea level rise and droughts will have on various temperate and tropical regions. Unusually long and severe droughts that caused food shortages have already been implicated as a major contributing factor in the current Syrian civil war. The Siberian permafrost thaw will add fuel to the fire of these social travesties, not only on a global scale but also in Siberia. The aforementioned physical anomalies will render the foundations of Siberian cities inept if their locations coincide, creating a new genre of climate migrant as towns and cities sink into the ground. This could afflict by no means a handful of people; the region’s population is in the tens of millions. Permafrost thaw is bad news ecologically too. Siberia’s thermokarst lakes are hotspots for biodiversity, but as the surrounding ground thaws out it becomes more porous, and the lakes are at risk of simply draining away, threatening these rare habitats.

Returning to the Yamal peninsula, other horrors are escaping from the newly thawed permafrost. Anthrax, a toxic microbe that is the stuff of nightmares and governmental biological warfare security briefings, is able to stay dormant and survive as spores for over a hundred years at low temperatures, and has this year begun to ravage through nomadic populations. Tens are infected and at least one person has died along with thousands of reindeer, the source of the indigenous Nenet community’s livelihood. The main suspect: an old reindeer corpse that has thawed along with the permafrost, still harbouring anthrax spores from an outbreak of the kind thought to only exist in history books. These unexpected ramifications of permafrost thaw and more widely global warming are frightening to say the least, and there is no reason to expect them to be limited to Siberia.

Earlier in 2016, wildfires ravaged the province of Alberta in Canada, destroying hundreds of square kilometres of forest and forcing tens of thousands of people into evacuation. A tragedy in itself, the removal of the vegetative layer is having serious repercussions for the permafrost below. As incident light intensity has increased on the remaining permafrost, the increased ground temperature has accelerated thawing and, like in Siberia, methane and carbon dioxide has come pouring out. In addition, a warmer ground temperature has sparked the proliferation of ancient microbial communities that add to greenhouse gas emissions through their digestion and metabolising of freshly available thawed organic material. There are also concerns over whether nitrous oxide (a super-potent greenhouse gas) emissions could increase due to a spike in the metabolism of denitrifying bacteria. Evidence points to such an increase on permafrost whose vegetative layer has been lost.

As climate system science advances, it is becoming clear that systems across the globe are interlinked, and that global warming could unravel them. Greenhouse gases released from thawing permafrost in Siberia worsen global warming, which in turn causes the desiccation of vegetation, making it more flammable. Weather phenomena such as El Niño also intensify as the planet cooks, making droughts longer and more severe which, when combined with parched plant life, makes large forest fires such as those seen in Canada and Indonesia within the past year ever more common. The positive feedback loop is then complete, as an increase in forest fires releases more carbon into the atmosphere and further threatens permafrost. These factors combined make for the perfect storm, and the window in which action can be taken is passing us by.

June 2016 alarmingly was the fourteenth consecutive hottest month since records began in 1880, and the thawing of permafrost is still seen by global institutions set on modelling and tackling climate change as a symptom rather than a driver of global warming. Models used by the IPCC do not even take into account the greenhouse gases released from the process. This is a glaring omission from climate models. It means that, in order to keep to the COP21 agreed upon maximum of 2°C average global warming to avert catastrophic climate change, we should be aiming for no more than a 1.7°C increase to take into account thawing permafrost emissions, according to Hugues Lantuit from the Alfred Wegener Institute. This means that expansive fossil fuel exploration and mega-extraction projects (such as those ironically situated in the Alberta tar sands) must come under fire immediately in order to abruptly transition to a green global economy. The size of the challenge is immense and, as Naomi Klein lays out brilliantly in This Changes Everything, it will require the unification of all people in a fight against the most powerful industries that have ever existed.