12 August 2005

a warm day in Siberia

Climate warning as Siberia melts
The world's largest frozen peat bog is melting. An area stretching for a million square kilometres across the permafrost of western Siberia is turning into a mass of shallow lakes as the ground melts, according to Russian researchers just back from the region.

The sudden melting of a bog the size of France and Germany combined could unleash billions of tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The news of the dramatic transformation of one of the world's least visited landscapes comes from Sergei Kirpotin, a botanist at Tomsk State University, Russia, and Judith Marquand at the University of Oxford.

Kirpotin describes an 'ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming'. He says that the entire western Siberian sub-Arctic region has begun to melt, and this 'has all happened in the last three or four years'.

What was until recently a featureless expanse of frozen peat is turning into a watery landscape of lakes, some more than a kilometre across. Kirpotin suspects that some unknown critical threshold has been crossed, triggering the melting.

Western Siberia has warmed faster than almost anywhere else on the planet, with an increase in average temperatures of some 3 degrees C in the last 40 years. The warming is believed to be a combination of man-made climate change, a cyclical change in atmospheric circulation known as the Arctic oscillation, plus feedbacks caused by melting ice, which exposes bare ground and ocean. These absorb more solar heat than white ice and snow.

Similar warming has also been taking place in Alaska: earlier this summer Jon Pelletier of the University of Arizona in Tucson reported a major expansion of lakes on the North Slope fringing the Arctic Ocean.

The Climate of Man
Traditionally, the men in Shishmaref hunted for seals by driving out over the sea ice with dogsleds or, more recently, on snowmobiles. After they hauled the seals back to the village, the women would skin and cure them, a process that takes several weeks. In the early nineteen-nineties, the hunters began to notice that the sea ice was changing. (Although the claim that the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow is an exaggeration, the Inupiat make distinctions among many different types of ice, including sikuliaq, 'young ice,' sarri, 'pack ice,' and tuvaq, 'landlocked ice.') The ice was starting to form later in the fall, and also to break up earlier in the spring. Once, it had been possible to drive out twenty miles; now, by the time the seals arrived, the ice was mushy half that distance from shore. Weyiouanna described it as having the consistency of a 'slush puppy.' When you encounter it, he said, 'your hair starts sticking up. Your eyes are wide open. You can't even blink.' It became too dangerous to hunt using snowmobiles, and the men switched to boats.

Soon, the changes in the sea ice brought other problems. At its highest point, Shishmaref is only twenty-two feet above sea level, and the houses, many built by the U.S. government, are small, boxy, and not particularly sturdy-looking. When the Chukchi Sea froze early, the layer of ice protected the village, the way a tarp prevents a swimming pool from getting roiled by the wind. When the sea started to freeze later, Shishmaref became more vulnerable to storm surges. A storm in October, 1997, scoured away a hundred-and-twenty-five-foot-wide strip from the town's northern edge; several houses were destroyed, and more than a dozen had to be relocated. During another storm, in October, 2001, the village was threatened by twelve-foot waves. In the summer of 2002, residents of Shishmaref voted, a hundred and sixty-one to twenty, to move the entire village to the mainland. Last year, the federal government completed a survey of possible sites for a new village. Most of the spots that are being considered are in areas nearly as remote as Sarichef, with no roads or nearby cities, or even settlements. It is estimated that a full relocation will cost at least a hundred and eighty million dollars.

People I spoke to in Shishmaref expressed divided emotions about the proposed move. Some worried that, by leaving the tiny island, they would give up their connection to the sea and become lost. 'It makes me feel lonely,' one woman said. Others seemed excited by the prospect of gaining certain conveniences, like running water, that Shishmaref lacks. Everyone seemed to agree, though, that the village's situation, already dire, was likely only to get worse.

US: climate deal complements Kyoto
US today insisted that its surprise announcement last night of a new pact over clean energy technologies with other five countries was not a threat to the Kyoto emissions treaty.

A deal between the US, Australia, China, India, South Korea and Japan was announced late yesterday in a statement by the US president, George Bush. The news prompted widespread surprise - not least in Downing Street.

Details of what the pact involves were still sketchy today but its explicit aim was to promote the invention and sale of technologies ranging from "clean coal" and wind power to next-generation nuclear fission with the aim of reducing pollution and addressing climate concerns.

The announcement of the New Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate received a mixed reaction, alarming many environmentalists. Critics noted that the partnership, which apparently comes after a year of secret talks, is not binding and sets no targets for reducing pollution.

By contrast the Kyoto protocol, signed by 140 countries to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, which experts believe contribute to global warming, is legally binding.

Some time, hopefully quite soon, alleged conservatives, whose real position is that the market rules everything by magic, are going to have to confront real tipping points, not the shibboleths they keep announcing as sure signs of victory in the Iraq side-show. The balance sheets are going to look fairly grim as these positive feedbacks, which the UN Clmate Change Panel has not yet incorporated into its models, start kicking in. The going rate on a wrecked planet is fairly steep. The Bush administration is extremely good at announcing these US-led initiatives. Actually doing something is less their style.