Siberia warming; scientists alarmed

There’s something happening in western Siberia that could have dramatic consequences for the entire planet. Climate scientists say the area symbolizes the “tipping point” in global climate change.

Tipping points are thresholds where slight rises in the Earth’s temperature can produce drastic change in the environment.

What they have discovered is that an area the size of France and Germany combined is thawing. The permafrost is melting, For the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago, it is turning into a landscape of mud and lakes, some more than half a mile across.

Why is this significant? Because the permafrost holds billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Released into the atmosphere, it could greatly speed global warming.

Dr. Sergei Kirpotin at Tomsk State University was the one who discovered this recent change in the world’s largest frozen peat bog. He was assisted by Judith Marquand at Oxford University. The discovery was reported in New Scientist magazine last week.

Dr. Kirpotin told other researchers, as reported on, that the situation was an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming.”

Other scientists were alarmed by the finding and said future predictions of global warming will have to be revised upwards.

David Viner, senior scientist at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told the magazine: “When you start messing with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it’s unstoppable. There are no brakes you can apply. This is a big deal because you can’t put the permafrost back once it’s gone. The causal effect is human activity, and it will ramp up temperatures even more than our emissions are doing.”

The intergovernmental panel on climate change predicted a rise in global temperatures of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius between 1990 and 2100, but that estimate only takes into account global warming driven by known greenhouse gas emissions. The group’s report was issued in 2001.

Scientists report that western Siberia is heating faster than any other part of the world, seeing a rise of 3 degrees Celsius in the last 40 years. Researchers are especially concerned about the permafrost because, as it thaws, it exposes bare ground, which warms quicker than snow and ice, and thereby speeds the rate at which the permafrost thaws.

Siberia’s peat bogs have been producing methane since they formed at the end of the last ice age, but the bulk of the gas has been trapped in the permafrost. Larry Smith, a hydrologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, told Common Dreams the west Siberian bog could contain 70 billion tons of methane, one-quarter of all the ground-bound methane on the planet.

Stephen Stitch, a climate scientist at the Met Office’s Hadley Center in Exeter, told the magazine the permafrost will not melt rapidly but will probably take many decades to thaw, thus preventing a sudden giant burst of methane into the atmosphere.

Dr. Stitch and his colleagues, however, note that even if methane seeped out of the permafrost for the next century, it still would add about 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, about the same amount released each year by the Earth’s wetlands and from farming.

Dr. Stitch said that amount would effectively double the atmospheric levels of methane, resulting in a 10 to 25 percent increase in global warming.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, termed Dr. Kirpotin’s finding a pointed message to politicians to take immediate action on climate change. “We knew at some point,” he said, “we’d get these feedbacks happening that exacerbate global warming, but this could lead to a massive injection of greenhouse gases. If we don’t take action very soon, we could unleash runaway global warming that will be beyond our control, and it will lead to social, economic and environmental devastation worldwide. There’s still time to take action, but not much.”

This past May, other researchers reported signs of damage to the permafrost in eastern Siberia. Katey Walter, of the University of Alaska, told the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. that her team had found methane hotspots in the eastern regions of Siberia. She said at these locations, methane was bubbling to the surface and preventing the surface from freezing.

Last month, some of the world’s worst polluters, including the U.S. and Australia, announced they would work to cut greenhouse gas emissions by means of new technologies.

That pact came after British Prime Minister Tony Blair nudged President George W. Bush at the G8 summit to commit to concerted action on climate change. Bush has set no targets for reducing greenhouse gases. The oil industry is opposed to even acknowledging climate change and global warming. Some observers say the oil companies want the ice sheets, especially in the Arctic, to melt because it will clear the way for ships to enter the area to drill for oil and gas.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

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