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Siberia Is Having a Record‑Breaking Heatwave, and Its Consequences Are Dangerous

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Jun 18, 2020

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Image credit: NASA

Around 25-30 degrees Celsius wouldn’t be out of place in your average Indian city. In Nizhnyaya Pesha and Khatanga — Siberian towns situated within the Arctic Circle — it absolutely would, considering the average daytime temperatures here in May-June are zero degrees Celsius. Siberia, a Russian province which covers almost all of Northern Asia, is undergoing unprecedented rapid temperature rises, which is damaging Arctic ecosystems.

Siberia is very sparsely populated, but erratic climate in the region can have global repercussions. This is because the region’s permafrost — permanently frozen grounds — contain large amounts of frozen carbon. When permafrost melts due to rising temperatures, the carbon flows through rivers and streams, eventually re-joining the atmosphere. This is a damaging cycle that further increases global warming. Melting permafrost will also release methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and harmful frozen microorganisms, including those responsible for previous pandemics like Spanish flu and the smallpox.

This rise in temperatures, and subsequent melting of Arctic polar ice is due to ocean currents warming, and carrying said heat to the poles. Another reason is an unusually strong polar vortex — a swirling, low pressure expanse of wintertime cold air in polar Arctic regions that doesn’t let cold winds slip southward to regions like Siberia. Plus, a bubble of high pressure hot air that scientists refer to as the ‘heat dome’ slipped northwards to the region between Northern Siberia and the Central Arctic Ocean, exactly around much of the sea ice.


Related on The Swaddle:

Russia Declares State of Emergency As Melting Permafrost Causes Massive Arctic Circle Oil Spill


“It is undoubtedly an alarming sign, but not only May was unusually warm in Siberia. The whole of winter and spring had repeated periods of higher-than-average surface air temperatures,” Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at Copernicus Climate Change Service, told the Guardian. She added, “Although the planet as a whole is warming, this isn’t happening evenly. Western Siberia stands out as a region that shows more of a warming trend with higher variations in temperature. So to some extent large temperature anomalies are not unexpected. However, what is unusual is how long the warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted for.”

For local Arctic ecosystems — a melting permafrost could lead to drained lakes, landslides, floods, and damage to the infrastructure of towns and cities. Only two weeks ago, Siberia saw an oil spill that put Russia in a state of emergency, and it occurred mainly due to melting permafrost damaging infrastructure. Man-made forest fires from last year continue to burn due to the heatwave. In June 2019 itself, Russian forest fires released as much carbon dioxide as Sweden would in a year. Plus, Siberian silk moth, a species whose larvae strip trees off needles and makes them more susceptible to forest fires, are proliferating in the heat, with experts claiming they’ve never seen ‘moths so huge and growing so quickly‘ in their careers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had said early in December,“Some of our cities were built north of the Arctic Circle, on the permafrost. If it begins to thaw, you can imagine what consequences it would have. It’s very serious.”

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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