Heatwaves across Siberia have broken records, burnt forests, and even melted the ground. As the icy foundations of Siberia give way, indigenous communities across the region are faced with collapsing infrastructure, emergency-state oil
spills and the outbreaks of ancient, fatal diseases.
When it comes to headlines on climate change, a huge number of them focus on the Arctic and Antarctica. But why? Well, there is their iconic ice-covered nature, which is being rapidly lost as our climate warms. But did you know that the
polar regions are warming twice as fast as other parts of the world?
This phenomenon is called polar amplification and is more severe at the North Pole (the Arctic) than at its southern counterpart (the Antarctic). Polar amplification is driven by ground ice melting, revealing bare ground or ocean,
which are both dark in colour. Since darker colours reflect heat and light poorly, the once-white land absorbs more heat than before, and in turn, the area warms up even more.
The 2020 headlines were no different as the Arctic endured its hottest ever temperature, a scorching 38°C. This temperature was recorded in Verkhoyansk, a town north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Russia. Interestingly, Verkhoyansk also
holds the joint record for the coldest temperature in Asia, an eye-watering -67.8°C.
What is more, the famous 38°C was recorded a whole month before Verkhoyansk typically sees its hottest summer temperatures.
And that was not all that the region endured. Early 2020 was the warmest January to June period on record throughout Siberia, not just for Verkhoyansk. Temperatures in the first half of 2020 were over 5°C above the 1951 to 1980
average across the vast region and it looks like these trends are our fault.
A 2021 paper from Andrew Ciavarella and his team at the Met Office investigated the role of anthropogenic
(human-induced) climate change in both the 38°C scorchers and the January to June heatwaves of 2020.
It seems that in a world without anthropogenic climate change, the January to June period of 2020 would have been 2°C cooler across Siberia. Ciavarella and colleagues also predict that this figure could increase by another 5°C by 2050, less
than 30 years away.
The paper states that the abnormally warm early 2020 temperatures in Siberia would have been ‘practically impossible’ without human influence. Furthermore, the authors show that anthropogenic climate change has made extreme Siberian
temperatures hotter, more frequent and ‘dramatically’ more likely.
Impacting the past, present and future
One clear consequence of the dramatic Siberian temperature rise is increased and intensified wildfire activity. In 2019, an area the size of the US state of Kentucky was incinerated by wildfires.
The year 2020 got off to an even worse start, with over 1000 more square miles of Siberian territory burned compared to the previous year, raising concern for the forestry and hunting industries that much of Siberia relies on. With
unmanageable, intense and frequent wildfires, there is potential for a significant loss of income in the region.
Wildfires in June 2020 alone released 56 megatons of carbon dioxide, more than the yearly emissions of Switzerland. It is looking like more heat means more fires, which means more greenhouse gases, more heat and more fires. You get the
This also brings a growing concern over the health impacts of these wildfires on the population, with the acrid smoke causing respiratory and dermatological issues among locals.
Another obvious consequence of the Siberian temperature rise is the thawing of permafrost. Permafrost refers to the permanently frozen layer of soil which acts as the backbone for the terrestrial Arctic. Unsurprisingly, permafrost is
melting (literally de-frosting) in hotter temperatures.
This—arguably—brings some benefits for Russia, as officials hope that the receding sea ice will ease trade across the Arctic Ocean between Asia and Europe, as well as improve access to sub-marine oil and gas.
The Mayor of the Siberian town of Srednekolymsk stated that the heat lets children play in the river and brings a longer growing season for the town’s vegetables.
But these gains come with a cost. The Mayor of Srednekolymsk also said how the heat has brought swarms of mosquitoes to the town, posing yet another health risk on top of the wildfire smoke.
Melting permafrost causes once stable land to change its shape, mangling roads, eroding river banks and toppling man-made structures as it does so. In Russkoye Ustye, the village’s 17th-century history has been eroded as older buildings
have collapsed into the river, resulting from the erosion brought on by the melting permafrost.
Fishermen in Russkoye Ustye are losing their livelihoods as the once plentiful fish are swimming to deeper, cooler waters in order to avoid the warming temperatures in the upper layers of the Arctic Ocean.
Thawing of ancient permafrost in the Russian city of Norilsk caused a commercial fuel tank to collapse into the once firm ground, ground which had been sturdy for years. Twenty-one thousand tonnes of diesel spilled into the River Ambarnaya,
polluting over seven miles of the river, prompting President Putin to declare a state of emergency.
Two-thirds of Russia are covered with a layer of permafrost, which combined with rising temperatures, poses a looming threat to the country’s 200,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines. By 2050, over $100 billion could be spent on
repairing Russian infrastructure damaged by the region’s thawing permafrost.
Even without oil spills, thawing permafrost has changed ecosystems across Siberia. Indigenous reindeer herders along the Kolyma River have had to adapt their ancient methods as the river ice (usually several metres thick) broke up earlier
than ever. Unfamiliar plant and bird species have been found in the tundra, and migrant birds have started arriving earlier than ever before.
Perhaps a less obvious impact of thawing permafrost is the emergence of disease-carrying microbes, once buried in the thick subsurface of ice. In 2016, the melting and shifting ground exposed a reindeer carcass which had been buried and
frozen for 75 years. The carcass released anthrax spores which were soon carried further afield by the hooves of thousands of reindeer. The disease hospitalised over 100 nomadic Nenets people, even killing a 12-year old boy.
Elsewhere in the Arctic, buried in the frozen ground, are victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Along the aforementioned Kolyma River, bodies of smallpox victims from over 100 years ago are resurfacing. This, of course, is a worrying
thought itself, but consider also the fact that the Arctic is experiencing more traffic than ever before. With more feet, hooves, tyres and paws crossing the Arctic, emerging microbes have the opportunity to travel great distances.
Sound familiar? If we have learnt anything at all from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that supporting hospitals, communities and laboratories is vital in the face of emerging diseases. Now, it seems, so is mitigating global warming to lessen
the chance of more pandemics in the future.
With wildfire raging through the Arctic, permafrost eroding the history of Siberian settlements, and future disease-ridden risks emerging, it is clear that Siberia—famously one of the coldest places on Earth—is not safe from the threat of
Streletskiy D., Suter L., Shiklomanov N., et al. (2019). Assessment of climate change impacts on buildings, structures and infrastructure in the Russian regions on permafrost. Environmental Research Letters. Volume 14,
number 2, page 025003.