Siberia’s ‘Poles Of Cold’ Are Obliterating Heat Records, And Alarming Climate Scientists

Cartoon Sun and Thermometer, adapted from cdc.gov

(Article text ©2020 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Matthew Luxmoore – July 11, 2020 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/siberia-s-poles-of-cold-are-obliterating-heat-records-and-alarming-climate-scientists/30720678.html)

Deep in Siberia, two settlements vie for the unenviable title of Russia’s Pole of Cold: Oymyakon, population 500, and Verkhoyansk — home to 1,200 hardy souls.

Since the 1890s, both have hit a temperature record unparalleled in history — minus 67.7 degrees Celsius — earning them fame and a steady trickle of thrill-seeking tourists.

But this year, on June 20, Verkhoyansk made headlines with a radically different milestone. That afternoon, temperatures reached 38 Celsius, probably the hottest seen above the Arctic Circle since records began.

“You go out and within minutes you’re covered in sweat,” Anna Sleptsova, a librarian who has lived in Verkhoyansk her whole life, said in a phone interview. “The summers are getting hotter every year.”

Russia’s meteorological service confirmed the Verkhoyansk weather record on June 30. But for Sleptsova and other residents, this summer is nothing extraordinary in light of recent years, when July heat has regularly topped 30 degrees.

Russia’s vast Sakha region, where the town lies, is accustomed to extreme temperatures; they vary there more than anywhere else on the planet. In Verkhoyansk, the sun shines round the clock for weeks in the summer, and vanishes for months in winter.

But for scientists analyzing the trend in Siberia, extraordinary is exactly what this year has been.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service, which operates several satellites, said in a statement on July 7 that the Arctic “has been warming substantially faster than the rest of the world,” noting that parts of northeastern Siberia had broken the record for the two warmest Junes – 2018 and 2019 – by at least a degree this year.

But June was not the only month to obliterate temperature records. The first five months of 2020 were 5.3 degrees above normal in Russia, according to Berkeley Earth, which calls it “the largest January-to-May temperature anomaly ever observed in any country’s national average.”

“What is unusual in this case is that from December to May, long warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted,” Freja Vamborg, senior scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service, told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments. She cautioned against viewing Siberia as representative of a global trend, however.

“It is undoubtedly an alarming sign, but western Siberia is a region that has high variability in temperature,” Vamborg said. “This means that, to some extent, large temperature anomalies are not unexpected.”

The rapid pace of warming has stunned climate scientists, despite years of gradually rising temperatures. But while some reassess their already dire predictions for coming years, Siberians are flocking to rivers and lakes and making the most of the short summer — and marveling at the scenes that climate change seems to create.

“When the summer arrived in late May, everything became green. Then, on May 29, the snow fell,” said Sleptsova. “Imagine! That’s the kind of weather we have now.”

In the meantime, some of the apocalyptic warnings appear to be coming true.

Fire, Flood, Drought

Raging wildfires are consuming swaths of forest in Sakha, which reported 183 active blazes across the region on July 5 and has deployed aviation to prevent them from engulfing villages and towns.

Vasily Yablokov, the head of the climate program at Greenpeace Russia, says the federal government is not doing enough to help prevent such catastrophes.

“We’ve warned that more money is needed for the battle against wildfires,” he told RFE/RL. “But the fires are only the most visible problem. We also have more floods, droughts, and other obvious consequences of the changing climate.”

Indeed, warming temperatures have also been blamed for a slew of environmental accidents this year, including a massive fuel spill near Norilsk, a city above the Arctic Circle, in late May. According to officials, thawing permafrost caused pillars supporting a storage tank to collapse, releasing 20,000 tons of diesel into waterways and turning nearby rivers crimson.

Authorities charged Norilsk Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin with bungling the response to the spill, and arrested at least four managers at the facility on suspicion of violating environmental-protection rules. Multiple criminal investigations were launched.

Norilsk Nickel, the mining giant that operates the facility, has promised to pay for the costs of the cleanup, estimated at 10 billion rubles ($145 million). In an interview with state TV on June 4, Sergei Dyachenko, a top company executive, chalked the accident down to “a loss of integrity due to thawing of the undersurface.”

Greenpeace cited what it said was negligence by Norilsk Nickel and compared the accident, in scope, to the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. Yablokov contends that inadequate precautions were primarily responsible for the spill.

“Permafrost [thawing] cannot be the main cause of such an accident,” he said.

The Norilsk spill was the largest and potentially most devastating of various recent incidents attributed to thawing permafrost, which across the region has caused the collapse of numerous buildings built on special stilts meant to withstand pressure. Russia loses vast sums of money each year from infrastructure damage from permafrost thaw — a cost likely to reach $100 billion by 2050, according to an international study released last year.

“If warming continues at its current pace, such accidents will repeat themselves in more and more catastrophic forms,” said Aleksandr Fyodorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, Sakha’s capital.

The world’s permafrost covers an area twice the size of the United States, and its carbon emissions are accelerating as the climate warms. It’s the kind of vicious feedback loop that characterizes many of the climate changes in the Arctic.

‘Nature Is Far Stronger’

As the active permafrost layer stops freezing in winter, the added warmth awakens microbes in the soil, which chomp on the thawing organic material, emitting carbon dioxide or methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent. The warmth spreads deeper into the permafrost, accelerating the thawing process. If the world fails to curb emissions, scientists say, permafrost could within decades become a greenhouse gas source on parallel with China.

The thaw also reawakens diseases the world has long deemed extinct. An anthrax outbreak on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula in 2016, which was caused by unusually warm weather, unleashed virus spores trapped in a frozen reindeer carcass for 75 years. A 12-year-old boy died, 115 people were hospitalized, and authorities hastened the introduction of a vaccination program affecting more than 700,000 reindeer each year.

“Man cannot reverse this process. Nature is far stronger,” said Fyodorov. “But if we combine efforts, we can soften the blow with our own actions.”

While increasingly cognizant of the effects of a warming climate, Moscow has at the same time sought to reap perceived benefits from it. A government paper published early this year acknowledged that climate change will “have a significant and growing impact on the country’s socioeconomic development, living conditions, human health, and on the economy.”

But it also included a plan to adapt Russia’s economy to not only mitigate the damage caused by climate change but also “use the advantages” it offers. Those are thought to include more land available for agriculture, savings on the cost of heating homes during shorter, milder winters, and greater access for Russian shipping in an Arctic Ocean depleted of ice — thus facilitating Moscow’s ambition to exploit the Arctic for its resources.

Activists say the government plan, while short on specifics, is a move in the right direction for a government that has done little to slow the effects of climate change on the world’s largest country.

“We’re happy that Russia at least has some thoughts about the climate,” Yablokov of Greenpeace said. “Because it is seriously behind in reacting to the catastrophes it’s causing.”

He expressed skepticism over the notion that Russia could harness climate change to its own advantage – even if it recognizes the true scope of the problem.

“It’s obvious that the negative effects outnumber the positive a thousand times,” he said. “A million, even.”