The Arctic is feverish and on fire — at least parts of it are, worrying scientists about what it means for the rest of the world.
The thermometer hit a likely record of 38°C in the Russian arctic town of Verkhoyansk on Saturday last week, a temperature that would be a fever for a person. The World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday said that it is looking to verify the temperature reading, which would be unprecedented for the region north of the Arctic Circle.
“The arctic is figuratively and literally on fire — it’s warming much faster than we thought it would in response to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and this warming is leading to a rapid meltdown and increase in wildfires,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, who is a climate scientist.
Illustration: Kevin Sheu
“The record warming in Siberia is a warning sign of major proportions,” Overpeck added.
Much of Siberia had high temperatures this year that were beyond unseasonably warm.
Between January and last month, the average temperature in north-central Siberia has been about 8°C above average, according to the climate science non-profit Berkeley Earth.
“That’s much, much warmer than it’s ever been over that region in that period of time,” Berkeley Earth climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said.
Siberia has some of the most extreme temperatures worldwide. Verkhoyansk is a place where the thermometer has swung 106°C, from a low of minus-68°C to now 38°C.
For residents of the Russian Sakha Republic, a heat wave is not necessarily a bad thing. Vasilisa Ivanova has spent every day this week with her family swimming and sunbathing.
“We spend the entire day on the shore of the Lena River. We have been coming every day since Monday,” said Ivanova, who lives in Zhigansk, a village 430km from where the heat record was set.
However, for scientists, “alarm bells should be ringing,” Overpeck said, adding that such prolonged Siberian warmth has not been seen for thousands of years, “and it is another sign that the arctic amplifies global warming even more than we thought.”
Russia’s arctic regions are among the fastest warming areas in the world.
The temperature on Earth over the past few decades has been rising, on average, by 0.18°C every 10 years.
In Russia, it increases by 0.47°C and in the Russian arctic, by 0.69°C every decade, said Andrei Kiselyov, who is the lead climate scientist at the Moscow-based Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory.
“In that respect, we are ahead of the whole planet,” Kiselyov said.
The increasing temperatures in Siberia have been linked to prolonged wildfires that become more severe every year and to the thawing of the permafrost — an immediate problem for buildings and pipelines in the arctic.
Thawing permafrost also releases more heat-trapping gas and dries out the soil, which increases wildfires, said Vladimir Romanovsky, who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“In this case, it’s even more serious, because the previous winter was unusually warm,” Romanovsky said, adding that if the permafrost thaws, ice melts and the soil subsides, triggering a feedback loop that worsens permafrost thawing which even “cold winters can’t stop.”
A catastrophic oil spill from a collapsed storage tank last month near the Russian arctic city of Norilsk was partly blamed on melting permafrost.
In 2011, part of a residential building in Yakutsk, the biggest city in the Sakha Republic, collapsed due to thawing and subsidence of the ground.
Last year in August, more than 4 million hectares of forest in Siberia were on fire, and this year, fires have already started raging much earlier than they usually do in July, Greenpeace Russia project department director Vladimir Chuprov said.
Persistent warm weather, especially if coupled with wildfires, causes permafrost to thaw faster, which in turn exacerbates global warming by releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide, said Katey Walter Anthony, a University of Alaska Fairbanks expert on methane release from frozen arctic soil.
“Methane escaping from permafrost thaw sites enters the atmosphere and circulates around the globe. Methane that originates in the arctic does not stay in the arctic. It has global ramifications,” Walter Anthony said.
What happens in the arctic can warp the weather far away.
In summer, the unusual warming lessens the temperature and pressure difference between the arctic and lower latitudes where more people live, said Judah Cohen, a winter weather expert at Atmospheric Environmental Research, a Boston-based commercial firm.
It seems to weaken and sometimes even stalls the jet stream, meaning weather systems such as those bringing extreme heat or rain can stay over places for days on end, Cohen said.
According to meteorologists at Russian weather agency Rosgidromet, a combination of factors — such as a high pressure system with a clear sky and the sun being very high, extremely long daylight hours and short warm nights — have contributed to the Siberian temperature spike.
“The surface heats up intensively. The nights are very warm, as the air does not have time to cool and continues to heat up for several days,” Rosgidromet chief meteorologist Marina Makarova said, adding that the temperature in Verkhoyansk remained unusually high from Friday last week to Monday.
Scientists agree that the spike indicates a much bigger global warming trend.
“The key point is that the climate is changing and global temperatures are warming. We will be breaking more and more records as we go,” Copernicus Climate Change Service senior scientist Freja Vamborg said.
“What is clear is that the warming arctic adds fuel to the warming of the whole planet,” said Waleed Abdalati, a former NASA chief scientist who is now a professor at the University of Colorado.
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