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Climate change: what will thaw out of permafrost?

According to meteorologists’ data, each of the past 2016 months has made its own temperature record. Such situation concerns academics and representatives of environmental public organizations who believe that climate changes not only provoke cataclysms but also are a fraught with hazardous incidents caused by permafrost thawing.

According to recently published data of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July 2016, as well as all other months since January 2016, proved to be the warmest months in the entire period of meteorological observations held since 1880. The tendency of growth of average temperatures of the lowest atmospheric layers keeps going on.

The summer of 2016 was the rainiest in the St. Petersburg history. On August 16, the city was flooded due to a night rain: roads turned into rivers. Several similar incidents have taken place this summer in the capital of Russia. “We have had new records registered for quite a few years. This all is related to climate changes,” Yury Varakin, Director of the Situation Center of the Hydrometeorological Centre of Russia, said in his interview to the Moscow Speaking radio station.

According to the data of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the temperature in Russia went up by 0.43 degree in the last decade. Climate changes have increased the number of floods and fires. Experts agree that we all should get used to such element manifestations; however, neither cities, nor agriculture and entire regions are ready to that.

Climate changes in the North are taking place at a quickened pace. The abnormal temperature increase causes permafrost thawing out. “Increase of frequency of infection eruptions is one of the outcomes of climate changes. Corps of animals that had died of various epidemics tens and hundreds years ago and ancient cemeteries had been ‘preserved’ in permafrost. Due to the global warming, permafrost is defrosting, and they come out onto the surface; spores appear and infections spread out again,” Director of the Greenpeace Energy Department Vladimir Chuprov said explaining connections of the recent epidemic of Siberian plague in Yamal with climate changes.

Experts support public ecologists’ opinions. Deputy Director of the SB RAS Permafrost Institute Mikhail Grigoriev told that this problem has become more acute in 2016 due to an extremely hot summer: Yakutia permafrost got defrosted to the depth of more than a meter while normally ice melts only to the depth of 30-60 cm.

“In the 1890s, a very serious epidemics of natural smallpox occurred in the lower course of the Kolyma River,” Research Deputy Director of the SB RAS Institute of the Cryolithic Zone Biology Boris Kershegolz told to the Sib.fm Agency. “There was a town; about 40% of the population had died due to epidemics. Naturally, they had been buried right under the upper layer of the longstanding frozen soils along the Kolyma coasts. Now, after slightly more than 100 years later, Kolyma spring floods started to wash out these burials.”

“Yakutia and Yamal are the two regions where remnants of the mammoth fauna are found in big amounts. Microbiological studies of two samples of mammoth remnants of about 20,000 years old have identified living bacterial cultures. We should mention that the environment has significantly changed since then and nobody can now tell how these cells will perform under the modern conditions,” Kershegolz claimed.

Western experts share Russian climatologists’ concerns regarding thawing above the Polar circle. They warn about hazardous toxic wastes left at abandoned military bases in Greenland. In his article published in the Geophysical Research Letters Magazine William Coglan, a climatologist from the York University of Toronto, wrote that Arctic warming affected the Greenland ice sheet including the area where the “Ice Worm,” a former U.S. military base was located. In the 1960s, a network of mobile launch pads was located under the ice sheet. In 1967, the base was disbanded, while its infrastructure and hazardous materials were left forever, as the military then thought, under the ice. Coglan and his colleagues believe that the ice has started melting and by the end of this century toxic wastes will emerge onto the surface endangering the environment of the area. “Two generations back, people had been burying wastes in various areas of the Earth. Presently, climate changes keep changing these locations. This is a new category of dangerous outcomes of climate changes which we should start thinking about.

Ecologists sound the alarm on the situation which is taking place in the North of Russia. They remind that besides hazardous infections and toxic wastes, there is another problem which the defrosted permafrost might cause: this is vulnerability of the Bilibinskaya NPS located above the Polar Circle. Representatives of public environmental organizations believe that it is necessary to adopt all possible measures to reduce the anthropogenic impact on the climate and also take measures allowing to decrease the threat to the people living in the most vulnerable permafrost areas. As environmentalists wrote in their Position, “it is necessary to put adaptation to the consequences of climate changes at the heart of active actions within our country.”