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  • Writer's picturePhilip Ammerman


Joshua Yaffa (@yaffaesque) has a brilliant article in The New Yorker entitled "The Great Siberian Thaw" on the effects of global warming and permafrost melt in Russia.

As temperatures warm, the 600-foot later of permafrost in the Arctic Circle begins to melt. As it does, methane (CH4) gas escapes. Over time, it oxidises in the atmosphere, forming CO2 and water vapour. This makes it one of the important greenhouse gases. What we don't know is how rapidly might the permafrost melt, and how much methane might be released.

The permafrost melt also releases all kinds of other goodies. Besides the mastodon remains found freshly-thawed, there have been several incidents of anthrax release. In one case, an anthrax epidemic that killed thousands of reindeer and one child. Yaffa's interview of Vitaly Laptander, the reindeer farmer who discovered the mass die-off is one of the most fascinating parts of his article.

Another fascinating conclusion comes from a German research team from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, monitoring ground-based carbon emissions at a site in Chersky. The researchers found that in the first year, carbon emissions are higher, but then vegetation encroaches on the site. So while emissions are higher, carbon fixing is also higher, and a new equilibrium is reached.

Yaffa also indicates -- very briefly -- that the climate models used to model CO2 emissions do not take into account non-linear, or more abrupt, release of methane or carbon from permafrost.

The article also hints around terraforming as a possible solution. Not the terraforming solution of pumping aerosols into the atmosphere, nor dropping iron filings into our oceans, but by re-engineering grasslands in the arctic steppes. Theoretically, grasslands would do a better job of reflecting the sunlight, rather than absorbing it, which is what the current vegetation does. This in turn would protect the permafrost for longer. There are obviously lots of negatives on this approach, not least of which is the need to mechanically (not thermally) destroy millions of acres of forests and shrubs.

The article concludes with a brief review of public policy.

"In May, Russia’s environmental minister proposed a nationwide system to monitor climate-induced changes in the permafrost, noting that its thaw could cause more than sixty billion dollars’ worth of damage to the country’s infrastructure by 2050. The next month, Vladimir Putin, who in 2003 had remarked that global warming simply means “we’ll spend less on fur coats,” said of the country’s permafrost zone, “We have entire cities built on permafrost in the Arctic. If it all starts to thaw, what consequences will Russia face? Of course, we are concerned.”"

One of the best articles I've read in a long time.

Joshua Yaffa. The New Yorker. 10 January 2022

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