Siberian permafrost thaw warning sparked by cave data
The caves record changing conditions over hundreds of thousands of years
Evidence from Siberian caves suggests that a global temperature rise of 1.5C could see permafrost thaw over a large area of Siberia.
A study shows that more than a trillion tonnes of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane could be released into the atmosphere as a result.
An international team has published details in the journal Science.
The evidence comes from analysis of stalactites and stalagmites in caves along the “permafrost frontier”.
This is where ground begins to be permanently frozen in layers that can be tens to hundreds of metres thick.
Stalactites and stalagmites only grow when liquid rainwater and snow melt drip into the caves.
So these formations record 500,000 years of changing permafrost conditions – including warmer periods similar to the climate of today.
Thawing of permafrost would have huge implications for ecosystems, says the team
The records from a particularly warm period called Marine Isotopic Stage 11, which occurred around 400,000 years ago, suggest that warming of 1.5C compared to the present is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost – even in areas far north from its present-day southern limit.
“The stalactites and stalagmites from these caves are a way of looking back in time to see how warm periods similar to our modern climate affect how far permafrost extends across Siberia,” said Dr Anton Vaks from the University of Oxford.
“As permafrost covers 24% of the land surface of the Northern Hemisphere, significant thawing could affect vast areas and release (billions of tonnes) of carbon.”
He added: “‘This has huge implications for ecosystems in the region, and for aspects of the human environment.
“For instance, natural gas facilities in the region, as well as power lines, roads, railways and buildings are all built on permafrost and are vulnerable to thawing. Such a thaw could damage this infrastructure with obvious economic implications.”
And the BBC warns that Siberia’s rapid thaw already is occurring.
The world’s largest frozen peat bog is melting, which could speed the rate of global warming, New Scientist reports.
The huge expanse of western Siberia is thawing for the first time since its formation, 11,000 years ago.
The area, which is the size of France and Germany combined, could release billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
This could potentially act as a tipping point, causing global warming to snowball, scientists fear.
The situation is an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming,” researcher Sergei Kirpotin, of Tomsk State University, Russia, told New Scientist magazine.
The whole western Siberian sub-Arctic region has started to thaw, he added, and this “has all happened in the last three or four years”.
Western Siberia has warmed faster than almost anywhere on the planet, with average temperatures increasing by about 3C in the last 40 years.
The warming is believed to be due to a combination of man-made climate change, a cyclical atmospheric phenomenon known as the Arctic oscillation and feedbacks caused by melting ice.
“ When you start messing around with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it’s unstoppable ” David Viner, climate scientist.
The 11,000-year-old bogs contain billions of tonnes of methane, most of which has been trapped in permafrost and deeper ice-like structures called clathrates.
But if the bogs melt, there is a big risk their hefty methane load could be dumped into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
Scientists have reacted with alarm at the finding, warning that future global temperature predictions may have to be revised.
“When you start messing around with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it’s unstoppable,” David Viner, of the University of East Anglia, UK, told the Guardian newspaper. “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 speculated in 2001 that global temperatures would rise between 1.4C and 5.8C between 1990 and 2100.
However these estimates only considered global warming sparked by known greenhouse gas emissions.
“These positive feedbacks with landmasses weren’t known about then,” Dr Viner said. “They had no idea how much they would add to global warming.”