Leaking Siberian ice raises a tricky climate issue

By Arthur Max

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Nov. 21 2010 11:09 a.m. MST

She was stunned to see how much methane was leaking from holes in the sediment at the bottom of one of the first lakes she visited. "On some days it looked like the lake was boiling," she said. Returning each year, she noticed this and other lakes doubling in size as warm water ate into the frozen banks.

"The edges of the lake look like someone eating a cookie. The permafrost gets digested in the guts of the lake and burps out as methane," she said in an interview in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, en route to a field trip in Greenland and Scandinavia.

More than 50 billion tons could be unleashed from Siberian lakes alone, more than 10 times the amount now in the atmosphere, she said.

But the rate of defrosting is hard to assess with the data at hand.

"If permafrost were to thaw suddenly, in a flash, it would put a tremendous amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We would feel temperatures warming across the globe. And that would be a big deal," she said. But it may not happen so quickly. "Depending on how slow permafrost thaws, its effect on temperature across the globe will be different," she said.

Permafrost is defined as ground that has stayed below freezing for more than two consecutive summers. In fact, most of Siberia and the rest of the Arctic, covering one-fifth of the Earth's land surface, have been frozen for millennia.

During the summer, the ground can defrost to a depth of several feet, turning to sludge and sometimes blossoming into vast fields of grass and wildflowers. Below that thin layer, however, the ground remains frozen, sometimes encased in ice dozens or even hundreds of meters (yards) thick.

As the Earth warms, the summer thaw bites a bit deeper, awakening ice-age microbes that attack organic matter — vegetation and animal remains — buried where oxygen cannot reach, producing methane that gurgles to the surface and into the air.

The newly released methane adds to the greenhouse effect, trapping yet more heat which deepens the next thaw, in a spiraling cycle of increasing warmth.

Curbing man-made methane emissions could slow this process, said Walter Anthony.

"We have an incentive to reduce our fossil fuel emissions. By doing so, we can reduce the warming that's occurring in the Arctic and potentially put some brakes on permafrost thaw," she said.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its 2010 Arctic Report Card issued last month, said the average temperature of the permafrost has been rising for decades, but noted "a significant acceleration" in the last five years at many spots on the Arctic coast.

One of those spots would be Chersky, an isolated town on the bank of the Kolyma River at the mouth of the East Siberia Sea.

The ground in this remote corner of the world, 6,600 kilometers (4,000 miles) east of Moscow, has warmed about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) in the last five years, to about -5 C (23 F?) today, says Zimov, director of the internationally funded Northeast Science Station, which is about three kilometers (2 miles) from town.

The warming is causing the landscape to buckle under his feet.

"I live here more than 30 years. ... There are many (dirt) roads in our region which I used or built myself, but now I can't use anymore. Now they look like canyons," he says.

Buildings, too, collapse. The school in Chersky, a Soviet-era structure with a tall bronze statue of Karl Marx on its doorstep, was abandoned several years ago when the walls began to crack as the foundations gave way.

The northern Siberian soil, called yedoma, covers 1.8 million square kilometers (700,000 sq. miles) and is particularly unstable. Below the surface are vertical wedges of ice, as if 15-story-high icicles had been hammered into the soft ground, rich in decaying vegetation, over thousands of years.

As the air warms, the tops of the wedges melt and create depressions in the land. Water either forms a lake or runs off to lower ground, creating a series of steep hillocks and gullies. During summer, lakeside soil may erode and tumble into the water, settling on the bottom where bacteria eat it and cough up yet more methane.

The process takes a long time, but Zimov has done a simulation by bulldozing trees and scraping off moss and surface soil from 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of former larch forest, rendering it as if it had been leveled by fire.

Seven years later the previously flat terrain is carved up with crevices 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters) deep, creating a snowy badlands.

Gazing across a white river to the apartment blocks on a distant hill, Zimov said, "In another 30 years all of Chersky will look like this."

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