September 18, 2006

Signs of Global Warming in Siberia

Scientists in Siberia have been observing significantly more melting of the permafrost in the past few years as shown by expanding lake shores as the permafrost melts, Siberian lakes that don't freeze even in the winter, and the movement of plants and animals north as the habitat becomes more hospitable further north.

Siberia is melting. Vast tracts of Russian tundra, frozen for tens of thousands of years are starting to thaw. Many experts say the process is taking place so fast, they can only attribute it to the effects of global warming.

Western Siberia holds the world's largest frozen peat bog, an area bigger than Texas.

...Kirpotin says this local warming process has probably become irreversible.

"As we predicted in the early 1990s, there's a critical barrier," he says. "Once global warming pushes the melting process past that line, it begins to perpetuate itself."

Kirpotin, who's been studying these bogs for 15 years, is raising alarm bells. He says Siberia is one of the best places to observe the effects of global warming because the harsh continental climate isn't moderated by the jet stream or other weather patterns. He says the smallest changes in global conditions can be seen here sooner than in most other places.

They've noted the increased release of methane from the frozen bogs.

Kirpotin says one of the biggest environmental threats here is the release of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane that have been frozen and trapped in the permafrost for more than 10,000 years.

Many scientists believe that since methane is 20 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, any release of the vast reserves frozen in Siberia could have its own damaging effects on the earth's temperature. Kirpotin says methane is bubbling up so violently in some of the lakes, it stops them from freezing even at the depth of winter.

"It's very difficult for experts to measure exactly how much concentrated methane is being released into the atmosphere. That means the process could be happening many times more quickly than we think."

Scientists have been warning that the release of methane gas is a very worrying sign.

Scientists are becoming increasingly troubled at the increased rate at which methane is accumulating in the atmosphere -- an annual rate of 2 percent. The alarm bells are ringing because methane is capable of trapping heat at least 20 times more effectively than carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere from 15 to 20 years after it is released.

We already know that the destruction of tropical forests has resulted in the increase of dead plant material on the surface of the soil. This, in turn, has brought about an increase in termite populations and with it an increase in methane.

Another source of concern is the effect of global warming on the Arctic regions. Temperatures in the Arctic have increased by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-1950s. Computer models predict that the Arctic Ocean's sea ice could disappear within 70 years. The Arctic permafrost (frozen subsoil) is also melting at a surprising rate. Massive amounts of methane have been trapped in the permafrost for millions of years and estimates go as high as 400 billion tons.

If global warming is not contained, we may reach a point where substantial amounts of methane could be released into the atmosphere. This worries many in the scientific community because it is believed that the extinction of more than 90 percent of marine species some 250 million years ago was the result of the release of massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Global warming is a huge problem, and signs are that we are rapidly slipping over the tipping point when there isn't anything we humans can do except prepare for the coming calamity. We absolutely need better leaders to carry us through the next stages of global climate change.

Posted by Mary at September 18, 2006 09:57 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

Billmon's Whiskey Bar pointed to an article which had this quote: "I'm an optimist," James Lovelock says. "There's no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing. Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. I think that after the warming sets in and the survivors have settled in near the Arctic, they will find a way to adjust. It will be a tough life enlivened by excitement and fear."

Posted by: Darryl Pearce at September 19, 2006 03:27 PM

Lovelock is to atmospheric science as Einstein was to physics.

We are past the tipping point. We could ban all cars tomorrow, and we would still be too late. Predictions of catastrophe 70 years out are far too optimistic. The heating trend is going to accelerate massively with the release of all that methane. We have a decade, perhaps two, before most of central America and central Asia become barren. The refugee flows that await us will be staggering. The wars will be overwhelming. The disease and starvation heartbreaking.

Stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

Posted by: anon at September 19, 2006 10:17 PM

It's not over till it's over. Don't ever give up hope.

Posted by: natasha at September 20, 2006 02:35 PM

The planet is complicated. The release of methane from the permafrost will probably increase rainfall on the planet, while the melting of the Arctic ice (we can now sail to the North Pole) will slow the Gulf Current, so that Europe and Canada become...colder. Enough frozen rain creates glaciers, of course.

This graph shows what has happened over the last 400,000 years, and what we can look forward to. The current time is the left edge of the graph; 10,000 years ago we experienced global warming, and now we can look forward to increasing cooling like the last 10 ice ages we have had over the last 1,000,000 years. Just the same way we can expect the sun to come up tomorrow.

Posted by: Chris Vail at September 25, 2006 06:18 PM