Siberia 2021: A Climate Time Bomb

In 1908, a sparsely-populated region of Siberia was hit by an explosion that literally sent shock waves across the world. Windows hundreds of miles away shattered, and airwaves set off by the detonation were detected in places such as Germany, the UK and even as far away as Washington DC. The cause of the air burst is still a matter of scientific debate, but the scale of the devastation was clear for all to see. An estimated 80 million trees, spread across an area of 830 square miles, were flattened by the blast. It was an environmental catastrophe.

But now, the region may be on the cusp of a far deadlier one.

Siberian Permafrost

Siberia is home to a huge area of permafrost, a layer of ground that has been permanently frozen, year-round, for millennia. It is more than just soil too; many plants and animals have essentially been cryogenically frozen in this ground, with scientists able to resurrect a plant retrieved from the permafrost in 2012 – 30,000 years after it went under. It is a haven for paleontologists, with the permafrost able to preserve specimens of old species without allowing them to decay in the same way most organic matter does over time. Recent discoveries have included mammoths, cave lion cubs and a woolly rhino that was still largely intact.

These discoveries may be welcome for one area of science, but for climatologists, they are worrying. They have only been made possible by the melting of the permafrost, and the large amounts of biomass found in this permafrost mean it also stores large amounts of greenhouse gas, and in particular, methane.

The Impact of Methane on Climate Change

For context, though carbon dioxide gets all the headlines for causing climate change, it is estimated that methane is responsible for 30% of the contribution towards global heating. There is far less of it being emitted; however, over a 20-year period, it is a staggering 72 to 84 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat. This efficiency, combined with its “underdog” status in the mainstream media, makes it a very dangerous adversary in the fight against climate change.

Scientists have been aware of this potential climate disaster in Siberia for a while now. Speaking on the BBC documentary Earth: The Power of the Planet, ecologist Dr. Katey Walter explained where the methane comes from: “The permafrost contains a very large pool of organic carbon. It’s dead plant matter, and when it is thawed out, in the bottoms of the lakes, it’s a food source for organisms that produce methane. They eat the dead plant matter and they burp out methane. It is the by-product of their digestion”. 

She then detailed the most destructive element of this release “the methane then heats the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, which then causes more permafrost to melt and more methane to be produced and it’s sort of this vicious feedback cycle.”

“We think of this permafrost here as a time bomb waiting to go off”

It should be noted that this isn’t a universal opinion in scientific circles. This article, for example, plays down the possibilities of a “methane monster” rising from beneath the permafrost, instead warning that the methane monster is humanity itself, producing it in the same way we do with CO2. It argues that whilst more methane will inevitably be released as the permafrost melts, it’s likely to be a slow and gradual process, rather than a sudden, high volume expulsion.

But no matter how it is released, the dangers of a melting permafrost remain and as temperatures rise, so do those dangers. Last summer’s Siberian heatwave saw wildfires spread through forests, and also led to increased emissions of methane.

There is a high chance that the heatwave of this summer had the same effect, and as global temperatures rise, the heatwaves will become more common. The feedback effect is coming into play.

The fact is that, minimal or not, any increase in methane emission isn’t exactly good news. It is difficult to confirm whether it is an impending disaster or more of a slow cooker, but either way, the risks are certainly there.

So what can be done about it?

Well, aside from putting a Truman Show-esque dome over the entirety of Siberia’s permafrost and keeping temperatures frozen inside, there’s not a whole lot to be done directly to the area. However, what we can do is work on our own methane emissions, helping to reduce its impact on the atmosphere and prevent us from adding even more to it than what the Earth itself produces.

Humanity’s methane emissions primarily stem from three areas: fossil fuels, waste and agriculture. The first one is the obvious place to start, as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels would greatly lower both methane and CO2. Coal mining accounts for around 12% of emissions, but the extraction, processing and distribution of oil and gas is responsible for nearly double that amount, at 23%. This is what is so concerning, then, about the UK government’s plan to drill for more oil and gas in the North Sea. Our job, as consumers, is surely to fight plans such as these. 

More attention also needs to be brought to the efficiency and effectiveness of methane when it comes to climate change. Though a few articles dotted around the Internet have touched upon it, more mainstream coverage is needed to inform the public that Carbon Dioxide has a strong accomplice that also needs to be dealt with.

The situation in Siberia is just a small part of the larger methane problem, which itself is another obstacle in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. The longer that Governments ignore this issue – and even exacerbate it – the harder that fight becomes. This COP26 presents them with another opportunity to properly commit to change and to act upon it. Should they not, it is up to us, the public, to continue putting the pressure on – and do our own bit for the cause as well.

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