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Siberia melts

Siberia melts

Permafrost covers nine million square miles of the Earth’s surface – and it’s thawing faster than ever. Will the big melt become a climate feedback loop?

Last week scientists warned that 70 per cent of buildings, roads and pipelines in the Arctic will be at risk of breaking up or sinking into the melting permafrost by the middle of the century. There is no reason to doubt these findings, but they’re the least of the threats the great Siberian thaw poses to the planet.

Permafrost covers nine million square miles of the Earth’s surface – two thirds of Russia and a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s thawing, and the impact on atmospheric chemistry could be catastrophic. Earlier this century experts sounded the alarm about a potential “methane bomb” lurking in undersea permafrost off Siberia’s coast. That is now a scenario expected to play out over decades rather than years, but the warming of the tundra itself will release billions of tonnes of CO2 and methane which in turn is likely to drive an accelerating climate feedback loop. How fast the loop spins is one of the great unresolved questions of climate science. 

What is known:

  • The top three metres of permafrost soil in the northern circumpolar region contain more carbon than humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the pre-Industrial era. 
  • Arctic temperatures are rising up to four times faster than the global average, causing ancient ice to thaw at an unprecedented rate. As microbes in the soil awaken and begin to eat defrosting biomass, methane as well as carbon dioxide is released, and methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Hence the spectre of a climate feedback loop.  

What isn’t. Known unknowns that could be speeding up the warming process include: 

  • Abrupt thaw. As ice-rich permafrost unfreezes it can distort the terrain, leaving it susceptible to landslides and pockmarked with craters up to 18 metres deep. The number of “thermokarst slumps” increased 60-fold between 1984 and 2015, and they provide a direct route for carbon buried deep in the permafrost to reach the atmosphere. It’s estimated that this process could contribute half as many emissions as those expected from gradual thaw – yet most climate models exclude it.
  • Lightning. The air above the Arctic isn’t just getting warmer, it’s getting wetter. Moisture and faster convection are providing more ammunition for lightning storms which in turn cause forest fires that melt the surface ice. The High Arctic saw 7,278 lightning strikes in 2021 – nearly twice as many as in the previous nine years combined. But a similar trend is also being witnessed further south: “When I was a child I remember just one thunderstorm happening, but in the last year I’ve seen lightning flashes every couple of days,” says Nikita Zimov, a resident of Yakutia in eastern Siberia.

Meanwhile, the great thaw is already affecting human activity in the Arctic:

  • Infrastructure. Technology exists to cool buildings’ foundations and keep pipelines above the tundra. But spending money to stay still makes limited sense, which is why the World Bank and others have been working since the turn of the century to persuade Russians living in the Far North – who account for 90 per cent of humanity’s presence in the Arctic – to move south.
  • Biosafety. Arctic nations are increasingly concerned that new threats to human health could emerge from animals and microbes frozen in the permafrost for millions of years. The Arctic Council’s Biosecurity Project, a new task force spearheaded by Russia, has been set up to monitor natural biohazards. It plans to release a report next year on the distribution of zoonotic agents in the Arctic that result either from animal migrations or permafrost thaw.

What is to be done?

  • Measure. Remote-sensing technology can help pinpoint where and how much methane is being produced, and NASA and the European Space Agency have brought together permafrost experts and data scientists to pair satellite data with on-the-ground research. “We still don’t have a good estimate for how much methane is being produced from thaw,” says Annett Batsch of the Austrian Polar Research Institute. “This is an attempt to correct that.”
  • Mitigate. The bad news is there’s no way to reverse permafrost thaw on a human timescale and temperatures in the Russia Arctic last summer reached nearly 38 C. The better news is that from the available evidence available the thaw has not yet reached a tipping point – but it has gone far enough to make Vladimir Putin pay attention. Two years ago he was a regular critic of Greta Thunberg. Last year he set Russia the target of cutting emissions to below the EU’s by 2050.  


Cash float
Scotland is bidding to be the world leader in floating offshore wind. 25 gigawatts of development rights have been awarded to companies including SSE, Shell and BP for wind projects in Scottish waters. The auction raised £700m for the Scottish government and has the potential to double the UK’s current renewable capacity, which would be a big step towards its net zero milestone of 40 gigawatts by 2030. More remarkable is that so many of the contracts (more than half, producing 13 gigawatts) are for floating turbines, given the UK’s first floating turbine only appeared in 2017. The path to mass-scale deployment of floating wind won’t be smooth: considerable opposition from the fishing industry still has to be overcome and high costs of development have to be recouped. “What we need to do now is to put all of our efforts and focus on massively driving down the cost of mass manufacture of floating foundations,” says Keith Anderson of Scottish Power. But the upside is the opportunity. The highest wind speeds are found in deep water, and turbines with fixed foundations are limited to depths of 165ft.

engagement and activism

Pie in the sky
Environmental lawyers are suing the UK government over its net zero strategy – and they’re relying on the government’s own evidence of “speculative and unproven technologies” to make the case. ClientEarth is arguing that a failure to set out credible policies to tackle climate change is unlawful and that the strategy’s reliance on carbon capture and storage methods (CCS), sustainable aviation fuel and low carbon hydrogen “amounts to greenwashing and climate delay”. A spokesperson says government documents including its “Jet Zero” consultation, the UK Hydrogen strategy and a call for evidence on CCS methods will be used to back up claims in court. Concerns about holes in the net zero strategy have been echoed by the Committee on Climate Change: “The exact plan is currently unclear in the absence of a specific strategy for decarbonising agriculture and land use. These ambitions are clearly very stretching, and progress will need to be monitored closely.” ClientEarth has form. It has repeatedly used the courts to hold the government to account for failing to meet its own air quality standards. Note to HMG: there is a way round this. Obey the law.


China’s nature bill
Scientists attending the virtual World Economic Forum have added up the economic cost of nature loss, and the results don’t look good. Reports published yesterday said more than half of global GDP is at least moderately dependent on nature, including 44 per cent of GDP accounted for by cities. In China, 65 per cent of total GDP – or $9 trillion – is currently at risk. Decades of population growth, booming consumption and expanding cities have led to the destruction of 40 per cent of China’s native mangrove ecosystems since 1950, and have left a fifth of vertebrates at risk. That could cost Beijing dearly, but the bill isn’t inevitable. The reports say rapid shifts toward nature-positive business could bring China a $1.9 trillion boost and 88 million new jobs by 2030.


A chemical cocktail
Road runoff, fatbergs and wet wipe reefs. These are now some of the defining features of English rivers, according to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee that found only 14 per cent rank as being in good ecological shape. Not one got a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. The report is candid about the causes: cuts to the Environment Agency’s funding and a glaring lack of political will. It says successive governments, regulators and water companies have turned a blind eye to dumping sewage – a practice that occurred 400,000 times in 2020 alone. ​​Feargal Sharkey, the clean water campaigner, was excoriating: “what the report ultimately exposes is the shambles of government’s environment policy. A threadbare landscape devoid of content and ambition.” It bears noting that the UK has no dedicated environment minister. 

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday and Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images

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