“For the first time in recorded history, temperatures reached 38°C (101°F) in a remote Siberian town – 18°C warmer than the maximum daily average for June in this part of the world, and the all time temperature record for the region”, writes Jonathan Bamber, a Professor of Physical Geography in University of Bristol (Bamber 2020). The location in the news for the heatwave is Verkhoyansk, a remote town in Siberia, geographically located within the Arctic Circle and inhabited by close to 1300 people (Fig 1) (BBC 2020). About 10 kms north of the Arctic circle, Verkhoyansk usually experiences an “average 40 degrees below zero Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit) in winter, and it rarely gets warmer than 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) in summer” (voanews 2020). According to a few meteorologists, the spike in temperature could be the highest ever recorded in the north of the Arctic Circle (ibid.). The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has issued a statement that they are working towards verification of this unprecedented Siberian heatwave and the associated spike in the temperature readings of the region, reports Independent (Ng 2020).
Fig.1 Record Temperature in Verkhoyansk, Russia for the month of June, 2020
What is a Heatwave?
A heatwave starts with high atmospheric pressure building up over an area.The air column moving downwards compresses the air that is closer to the ground, holds it still and heats it up (Irfan 2020). The same “high pressure also forces clouds away and around the column, creating an unobstructed line of light between the ground and the sun…Over a period of days and weeks, the ground absorbs sunlight and with stagnant air, heat accumulates and temperatures rise” (ibid.). According to Walt Meier, a Senior Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, ““there’s nothing coming in and nothing going out,”… “it is kind of like an oven basically” (ibid.).
Why The Spotlight on The Heatwave Experienced By a Remote Town in The Arctic Region?
It is a common knowledge among the experts and the scientists working in the domain of climate change that the “annual Arctic air temperature continues to increase at more than double the magnitude of the global mean air temperature increase” (Fig 2) (Overland et al. 2019). To put the same in a less scientific language—temperatures across the Arctic are increasing at a rate ‘about twice the global average’. According to the WMO, “Annual surface air temperatures over the last four years (2016–2019) in the Arctic (60°–85°N) have been the highest on record…The volume of Arctic sea-ice in the month of September 2019 (after the melting season) has declined by more than 50 per cent compared to the mean value for 1979–2019” (WMO 2020). More disturbingly the surface air temperature of the Arctic is an indicator of global and regional climatic changes—a worrying caution not just for the populace in the Arctic region but for the entire world community (Overland et al. 2019).
Fig 2: Across the globe, in the period of 1960-2019, “average air temperature has generally increased by around 1 o C. But, towards the North Pole the reds become darker. This shows how the temperature increase has been more marked here than anywhere else—by around 4 o C”.
The pertinent question though is why has the sweltering heat in a remote town (sparsely populated that too) in the Arctic region grabbed international attention? Particularly, when the increasing global warming and the associated climate change repercussions in the Arctic region are well documented for very many years. Especially, at a time when the international community and the global media are deeply engaged in the panning out of the Covid-19 catastrophe. To understand the sense of urgency that the present Siberian heatwave crisis is posing to the world, one needs to first travel a few decades back. The Verkhoyansk along with another town in Siberia has for a longest period held the record for being the world’s coldest inhabited place (Kormann 2020). According to The New Yorker, “The record was set in 1892, when the temperature dropped to 90 below -17.77 Celsius (zero Fahrenheit), although these days winter temperatures are noticeably milder, hovering around 50 below” (Fig 3) (ibid.).
Fig 3: Verkhoyansk, once the world’s coldest inhabited place
Source:Dr.Meshcherskaya, Climate of the USSR, 1956 | https://wmo.asu.edu/content/northern-hemisphere-lowest-temperature
The enormity of the heatwave episode is significant from a timeline perspective too—in a span of close to 13 decades the coldest inhabited place in the world has started experiencing a sweltering heatwave. The unusually short timeline within which the impacts of the dramatic climate change is being experienced should be read as one of the tangible examples of the growing global crisis.
In recent years, the heatwaves across the Arctic region is not an uncommon or unusual phenomenon. According to Simon King, a weather meteorologist with BBC, “Weather patterns around the world can align in such a way that hot air is transported quite far northward and colder air from the poles southward. Over the last few months a large area of high pressure in eastern Russia has been dominant. This has led to southerly winds bringing warmer air from near the tropics, leading to higher than average temperatures” (BBC 2020). Simon also points out, what is most worrying about the current heatwave in the Arctic region is the persistence in the pattern of weather across the region, that “has led to a longevity and scale of heat…. This is consistent with what climatologists believe will happen in the Arctic with climate change” (Fig 4) (BBC 2020).
Another crucial warning about the unusual Siberian heatwave comes from Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist and environment school dean of University of Michigan – “The Arctic is figuratively and literally on fire — it’s warming much faster than we thought it would in response to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and this warming is leading to a rapid meltdown and increase in wildfires”….And this Siberian heatwave is a “warning sign of major proportions” (Litvinova and Borenstein 2020b). Thus, the heatwave in a remote Siberian town is causing panic and frenzy because it highlights once again the catastrophic environmental impacts due to the prolonged heat in the Arctic region—signalling the implications that lies in future.
Fig 4: Prolonged heating in the Arctic. “The darkest reds on this map of the Arctic are areas that were more than -10 o C (14 o F) warmer in the spring of 2020 compared to the recent 15-year average. Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory”.
Image Source :https://hickoryrecord.com/news/science/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern/article_80f37476-8b07-54ee-aa25-da2e7845c00a.html
Impacts of Prolonged Arctic Heating
The Arctic Wildfires: Siberia has seen massive fires consistently for a few years now. Though, forest fires are a natural occurrence in Siberia, “the blazes in recent years were unusually large and close to population centers ….the fires burning in the region now could continue to spread as the summer season warms the region further” (Irfan 2020). It is to be noted that temperatures were above average in the month of April 2020 in most parts of Siberia and the northern and coastal Central Greenland, reports the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) (atmosphere.copernicus.eu 2020).
It is a known fact that the possibilities of wildfires are aggravated by the prolonged heating and the dry climatic conditions of a region. The WMO points out that, “it wasn’t just May that was unusually mild in this region; the whole of winter and spring had repeated periods of higher-than-average surface air temperatures, particularly from January onwards” (WMO 2020). The WMO states categorically that the current prolonged Siberian heatwave has also coincided with an increase in wildfire cases in the region (ibid.). This dangerously plausible symbiotic existence between the prolonged heating and the outbreak of fires is further corroborated by Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and a wildfire expert of Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) – “we know from the climate data provided by C3S that the Arctic Circle regions most affected by fires in 2019 were experiencing warmer and drier surface conditions, providing the ideal environment for fires to burn and persists” (atmosphere.copernicus.eu 2020).
Although the hypothesis has not been confirmed yet, the scientists are now seeing “the possibility of existing ‘Zombie’ fires in the Arctic” region (atmosphere.copernicus.eu 2020). Now, what are these ‘Zombie’ fires – The harsh cold winter in the Arctic region usually snuffs out the wildfires (seasonal) that break out in the region. But, it is also a concern that occasionally there happens outbreak of wildfires which refuse to die out – “these blazes, known as “zombie fires” or “holdover fires,” can burrow into the rich organic material beneath the surface, such as the vast peatlands that ring the Arctic, and smolder under the snowpack throughout the frigid winter” (Freedman 2020). If the ‘zombie’ fires are a reality and have reignited then, according to scientists like Mark Parrington, “under certain environmental conditions, we may see a cumulative effect of last year’s fire season in the Arctic which will feed into the upcoming season and could lead to large-scale and long-term fires across the same region once again” (Freedman 2020).
In fact, it is not just the Siberian part of the Arctic region that is experiencing this unusual occurrence of wildfires. Again quoting Mark Parrington of CAMS the most bizarre aspect of this fire activity is its occurrence “outside of what you would normally call the fire season” (atmosphere.copernicus.eu 2017). Mark Parrington says, “In August, you wouldn’t expect so many fire emissions from Canada, compared to July, but it’s been the case. Canada was fairly quiet in July but in August it has been a record for the period we have data for 2003 onwards” (ibid). It is rather distressing to note that wildfires are occurring at an unprecedented frequency and levels at many parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and of course Siberia (BBC 2019). Infact during the 2019 summer alone, “Alaska reported more than 600 wildfires, affecting over 2.4 million acres of land. The current wildfire numbers are at an all-time high in over 10000 years!” (Vyas 2019).
The impacts of the Arctic wildfires to our planet earth are aplenty and goes without saying, significantly catastrophic – most damaging being their contribution to the increasing global pollution. According to European scientists, the harsh wildfires in the Arctic region “released more polluting gases into the Earth’s atmosphere than in any other month in 18 years of data collection”, reports The New York Times (Sengupta 2020). While NASA is still studying why “boreal forests and tundra fires have become more frequent and powerful and what that means for climate forecasting, ecosystems and human health” – they have stated that these fires could lead to release of more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (NASA.gov 2019).
According to Liz Hoy, fire researcher for boreal at Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, “Arctic and boreal regions have very thick soils with a lot of organic material – because the soil is frozen or otherwise temperature-limited as well as nutrient-poor, its contents don’t decompose much….The thick, carbon-rich top soil layer of boreal forests and tundra acts as insulation for the permafrost, the perpetually frozen layer of ground underneath the surface organic mat…When you burn the soil on top it’s as if you had a cooler and you opened the lid: the permafrost underneath thaws and you’re allowing the soil to decompose and decay, so you’re releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere” (NASA.gov 2019). In 2019, the smog erupting out of these wildfires blotted out the sun while also causing serious breathing problems to the inhabitants of the region forcing authorities to declare ‘states of emergency’ in many parts (BBC 2019).
Norilsk Oil Spill: On May 29, 2020, an estimated 21,000 tonnes of diesel spilled into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers (and almost all of its tributaries), near the city of Norilsk, Russia (Fig 5) (Pullano 2020). The disastrous incident occurred due to the collapse of a fuel tank at a power plant operated by Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Co., subsidiary of Nornickel in the city of Norilsk—a town located above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s far North (Weise et al. 2020). The current oil spill in the Arctic region is speculated to be because of the melting of the permafrost, turning the base of the tank into slush. The spill is so massive and disastrous that it immediately prompted the Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare ‘a state of emergency’ on June 5, 2020, in the regions of Norilsk and Taimyr, northern Siberia, to assist the clean-up efforts (Weise et al. 2020). (https://www.geographyandyou.com/massive-oil-spill-in-the-arctic-region-russia-declares-a-federal-emergency/)
The unprecedented oil spill has “polluted huge stretches of Arctic rivers” and “has coloured remote tundra waterways with bright red patches visible from space” – significantly highlighting “the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures” (Scmp 2020). According to Katey Walter Anthony, an expert on the release of methane from the frozen Arctic Soil in the University of Alaska Fairbanks—the persistent and prolonged warm weather could as a matter of fact lead to faster thawing of permafrost in the regions (Litvinova and Borenstein 2020a). This Katey believes could aggravate “global warming by releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide” and warns that the “methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications” (ibid.). The permafrost can also stash away carbon dioxide, “1,500 billion tonnes of it—holding back the atmosphere-warming gas contributing to climate change….The amount of carbon stored in permafrost is nearly double the amount in the atmosphere….As temperatures warm, more carbon dioxide can escape” (Pullano 2020).
Fig 5: The site of Norilsk Oil Spill accident happened on May 29, 2020
Image Source: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/graphics/2020/06/05/oil-spill-red-river-permafrost-tied-russian-arctic-circle-emergency-diesel/3143679001/
The oil spill incident could in all probability be a direct outcome of what the global climate change experts have been long warning— “that unless precautionary steps are taken, such thaw could cause billions of dollars in damage to Arctic infrastructure” (Schreiber 2020). In the current oil spill over 76 million USD worth of damage to the Arctic waterways has been estimated by Greenpeace.
It is interesting to note that Norilsk with a population of around 180,000 people is the largest city in the world built on the surface of permafrost and not so surprisingly, “about 60 percent of the houses there have been damaged by permafrost thaw, and one in 10 have been abandoned” (Schreiber 2020). From the geostatistical analysis conducted by scientists, they concluded that “the cities of Norilsk and Susuman are hot spots of permafrost degradation….Results indicate that a substantially higher rate of change in the thermal regime of permafrost-affected soils prevailed during 1999–2013, relative to the last fifty years….The thermal regime of permafrost-affected soils shows stronger dependence on climatic conditions over the last fifteen years relative to the historical 50-year period” (Streletskiy et al. 2015).
Geopolitical Responses to Ongoing Climate Change Concerns
The geopolitical responses by the world leaders, particularly during the last few years to the matters relating to the growing climate change concerns in the Arctic region have been mixed. Russia after years of denial of the impacts of climate change have finally signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2019. This positive development could be read as the willingness of Russia to engage with other nations in their fight against the rising climate change concerns all across the globe. Also, with the climate change related catastrophes gripping Russia, the signing of the Paris Climate Accord could be a signal that the Russian leaders are finally acknowledging that climate change is for real and that it cannot be fought alone.
The response of the United States in matters relating to climate concerns ever since Donald Trump came into office as the President has disappointed the global community. Trump has brushed aside a report by his own government that claimed that the “that climate change will cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars annually…” – “I don’t believe it”, was his perplexing response (BBC 2018). Trump in fact quite contrarily accused other nation-states for the current climate change crisis. He urged other countries to implement adequate measures to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, going on to say, “Right now we’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been and that’s very important to me” (BBC 2018). While it is true that ‘other’ countries should also take up the responsibility, Trump conveniently ignored how rich, industrialist nations of the world (including the US) were once the primary contributors and chief benefactors of today’s protracted climate and environmental imbalance. Though the United States announced formally in 2017 their plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, as of 2020, primarily due to various technical reasons, they are still a part of the accord (Johnson 2019). This gives the world hope that there is still perhaps time for the US to reconsider the ill-timed decision.
Despite President Trump’s continued ambiguity and general indifference towards climate change, it is somewhat encouraging to see the US offering a helping hand to Russia to clean-up the massive Norilsk oil spill in the Arctic region. It is interesting to note that this generosity is despite the historic disagreements and the ‘cold’ rivalry between the two nation-states. “Despite our disagreements, the United States stands ready to assist Russia to mitigate this environmental disaster and offer our technical expertise” – said Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State (The Moscow Times 2020). It is still unclear as to the level of assistance Russia would seek from the US and in what form. Nevertheless, Russia has welcomed this goodwill gesture. Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry remarked, “Russia is thankful to the United States for readiness to give a helping hand in cleaning up the fuel spill in Norilsk,” (Tass 2020). Maria Zakharova also added that as of now the Russian state bodies and Norilsk Nickel have figured out ways to clean up (Tass 2020). The coming together of the US and Russia in the Norilsk oil spill disaster highlights that the mishap can have wider implications to the region’s environment.
The world understands today that the changes in environment/climate in one part of the world holds significant ramifications for all. As Katey Walter has pointed out earlier, the “methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications” (Litvinova and Borenstein 2020a). Likewise the ‘hotspots of permafrost degradation’ has most probably led to the current Norilsk oil spill disaster with clear implications for the entire Arctic region and beyond. The amount of carbon dioxide that will be released in the permafrost thaw can cause a further spike in global warming. Hence, activities by individual nation-states can threaten the natural balance of the global ecosystem which therefore ought to be adequately regulated and constantly monitored at the international levels.
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