Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Great Thawing: Siberia

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Geology, Sustainability, Climate Change, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

The question before us is what will happen to the Earth's atmosphere when the permafrost layers of the planet begin to melt.  It is such an important question because permafrost contains a lot of carbon, more than twice as much as Earth's atmosphere.

The New Yorker's Joshua Yaffa explores the issue and some of the ramifications. These are some notes from the essay which I urge you to read for the full and complex story. This is just a sketch and I've missed a few highlights.  

--Origin. Permafrost is a result of the last continental ice age about three million years ago during which temperatures plunged. In the northern regions of the world, temperatures took a deep and often prolonged plunge and the minus 80 degrees F (~ 62 Celsius temperatures froze the ground to great depths. This was a period of cycles of freezing and thawing caused by glacial advances and retreats.  It ended about 12,000 years ago, temperatures rose, melting sme surface soil but leaving behind a soil that was permanently frozen, no matter the season. We live in the last interglacial period.

--Quantity. A quarter of the land-mass of the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost deposits with Russia claiming about two thirds of it. It can be as much as a mile deep.

--Global Climate Change has led to temperature changes and since the Industrial Revolution, Siberia now experiences temperatures greater than two degrees C more. It is more than twice the global average. And permafrost is melting.

--Swallowing and Belching. During the glaciation/interglaciation periods the earth "swallowed up all matter of organic material, from tree stumps to wooly mammoths." This has provided a microbial feast, a stew and as it thaws, is releasing "a constant belch of carbon dioxide and methane." 

--Shergin's Shaft. In 1827, merchant Fedir Shergin, tried to dig a well and after working a decade, the shaft had reached 300' but this was not the bottom of the below ground soil-ice field in Yakutsk. Scientist Alexander von Middendorff led an expedition to Yakutsk and he published an estimate of some 600', which, it turns out, was accurate. Shergin's Shaft is still there underneath a log structure, one that according to Yuri Murzin of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute (MPI)who told Yaffa, "'smells of antiquity, of time gone by.'" 

--Construction. The Soviets adopted a settlement policy for its cold, northern regions, "encapsulated by Maxim Gorky's axiom,  paraphrasing Karl Marx that "in transforming nature, man transforms himself. "  But structures  began to fail: sink, tilt, collapse. Proposed solutions ranged from far-fetched, place dust rings around the Earth leading to temperatures which would melt all of the permafrost) to the practical, elevate building foundations through cement piles driven deep into the Earth. It was thought that this solution would "'serve  thirty to fifty years." Surely climate wouldn't change as "'dramatically within that span." In a report in 2016 it was noted "that 60 percent of the buildings in Norilsk were compromised as a result of permafrost thaw." In addition to Yakutsk, Norilsk (nickel rich) is the other large city built over permafrost.

--Permafrost types. Some is frozen soil and some consists of "yedoma," which is very rich in ice. In the latter, a vicious cycle, a feed-forward cycle, is common. Ice melts, water conducts heat well and the permafrost below it begins to melt and so on.Trofim Maximov, a climate researcher studying the contribution to climate change, told Yaffa "'It's a natural process. Which means that, unlike purely anthropogenic processes, once it starts you can't really stop it." Yaffa took a trip with a researcher from MPI who grew up in a village 80 miles from Yakutsk to observe the effects of this transformation on the ground. He describes the land as "craggy and dotted with small indentations...pock-marked."  Small ponds and lakes known as thermokarst lakes formed from melting ice, many are now dried up and or drying. These could have taken some 5000 years to form but have disappeared in 150 years. The dates are from birch tree fragments found on their bottoms. After leaving the home of his aunt and uncle, who "attempt to keep things level," the scientist told Yaffa that '"People don't understand the end of this story.'" They try to adapt, using shovels to level posts and homes, but "'the thaw will reach them all the same.'"

--Methane. While it doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is "twenty-five times as effective in trapping heat."  In 2001 when Katey Walter Anthony was a Ph.D. student, she began collecting data on methane emissions from thermokarst lakes. She published her work in Nature in 2006. The gases being emitted were the product of decaying organic debris "that formed between twenty and forty thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene." That gas is emitted year round and gas bubbles can be seen under the clear ice in the winter "as if the lake were a giant cauldron on the brink of a very slow, barely perceptible boil, with a pop of air here and there." While a "methane bomb" (massive sudden release of the gas) was once feared to the point of some hysteria, it turns out that it is a "slow-motion disaster."

--Climate Change Models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) has not until "only very recently started factoring in various permafrost-thaw models." The possible outcomes vary widely, to the point where one scientist has put it, they have become the "wild card" of climate science. One assumption in the models, one that is problematic is that the thaw will be gradual, linear but  there could be abrupt thaws that would trigger "non-linear events like rapid erosion of landslides."

--Disease. In 2016, a Laplander herder reported the death of 50 of his reindeer herd, later growing to more than 200, and eventually rising in the area to 2500. Samples revealed anthrax, the first in the Yamal Peninsula, home to the Nenets, a native ethnic group. Anthrax, a serious infectious disease. is found in soil and can infect wild and domestic animals as well as humans. Anthrax had long been thought to have been eradicated. Reindeer carcasses were burned, quarantine measures were set in place, and old soil samples studies showed no evidence of anthrax. Eventually it jumped to humans leading to hospitalizations and a death. Following the outbreak, a panel of experts reported "'The emergence of anthrax was triggered by the activation of "old' infection sites following anomalously high air temperature and the thawing of the sites to a depth beyond normal levels"'

--Microscopic life. A living rotifier was found in a thawed sample. That a bacterium might be able to survive frozen for this long is not surprising but this is a complex animal with a gut, nervous system, a brain, reproductive organs. This organism is "two-tenths of a millmetre in size, and survived for twenty-four thousand years. It was capable of reproducing and direct descendants are still being cultured.

--Mammoths and Pleistocene Park. Mammoth findings of exceptional quality are frequently reported from thawed permafrost. There is a Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk. Because they are so well-preserved they provide a very clear window into the Pleistocene, including the make-up of vegetation. Gut samples have been so well preserved that specific plants can be identified.  Humans were long thought to be the cause of their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene since they had no natural predators. However, analysis of ancient  environmental DNA  has provided strong evidence for the disappearance of their food.  A mammoth de-extinction effort is described which uses gene editing techniques. In 1998, a different attempt, based on the warming effects of snow was started. Less snow; more cold air. Since snow removal at the scale required can't be done, another mechanical means might be used to re-create this ancient ecosystem. It is led by a Russian scientist and his son and is known as Pleistocene Park (PP).'"  There is another Pleistocene Park unit in Alaska which is independent of the Russian effort.

How such an idea would work is described by Yaffa. "Those animals would break down shrubs and churn the soil, allowing grass lands to reappear. In summer, owing to the albedo effect--light surfaces reflect heat, dark ones absorb it--the pale grass would that grows remains cooler than the brown shrubs that currently blanket the tundra."  PP-Siberia is a fenced-in area of one-hundred and fifty animals, including horses, bison, sheep, yaks, and camels. To give them a head start, a "'hefty, all-terrain transport vehicle on treads,'" was used to knock "down trees and undergrowth. Eventually laboratory grown mammoths will be introduced.You will not be surprised to learn that not all scientists share such enthusiasm or hope. One noted that the required animal density "greatly exceeds anything that could be maintained naturally." However the son of the father involved in the project defended the effort, saying "'We're not reinventing the wheel here. This all existed at one point, we know that. How to re-create it now, though? That's the question.'" Later in the conversation he added "The point isn't whether it's O.K to act like a god but whether you're acting like a benevolent or wise one."  Indeed. See also this article in The Atlantic for more about the concept and team.

--Another Solution. There is one both obvious and unlikely. Duane Froese, University of Alberta put it this way: it is by "'reducing human emissions (of greenhouse gases). A focus on other solutions might be intriguing, but it's ultimately a distraction.'"  

Please read Joshua Yaffa's "The Great Thaw," print edition or on-line slightly retitled, "The Great Siberian Thaw." Long and worth the time which includes two photographs, including one of the home mentioned in Permafrost Types above.

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