Oil spills, wildfires, invasive insects… Siberia’s climate change vicious circle

Melting permafrost and forest fires in the Russian Arctic could accelerate climate change, according to experts.
Melting permafrost and forest fires in the Russian Arctic could accelerate climate change, according to experts. © AFP / FRANCE 24

On May 29, 21,000 tons of diesel fuel from the storage tank of a thermal power station in Siberia spilled onto the icy tundra and into rivers in one of the worst environmental disasters the Russian Arctic has ever seen and the result of what experts say is a vicious circle of climate change in the region.

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The owner of the thermal power plant has blamed the spill, which authorities say may take several years to clean up, on the subsidence of the tank’s supports caused by the thawing of the permafrost – a layer of normally permanently frozen ground – below.

The thawing permafrost is the result of rising temperatures caused by global warming, but could itself lead to accelerating climate change.

“We know that permafrost contains huge amounts of carbon, roughly twice the volume of what is in the atmosphere today. This carbon is frozen, protected, locked in. If the permafrost thaws, this carbon could be released,” Antoine Séjourné, a geomorphologist, Université Paris Saclay, told FRANCE 24.

“Carbon-rich gases would be released: CO2, methane, extremely powerful greenhouse gases. That would accelerate global warming and that would ‘re-thaw’ the permafrost. It creates a feedback loop and then you’re in a vicious circle.”

The harmful effects of global warming have been evident in Siberia for several years. In particular, warm winters and mild springs have seen a rise in forest fires.

“Forest growth is dictated by the temperature. As temperatures rise, the forest colonises places that were previously too cold,” said Séjourné.

“We know that global warming intensifies extreme weather events: droughts, heavy rains… It gives energy to the thermal mechanics of the climate. Therefore, forest fires are more likely to develop in already fragile ecosystems.”

With the expansion of the forests, the number of fires is increasing. An average of six million hectares of forest burned down every year between 2010 and 2019, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences, compared to three million hectares a year between 2000 and 2009.

Increasing fires also threaten the capacity of boreal forests to retain carbon dioxide and methane, again adding to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Warming temperatures are also aiding the spread of invasive species such as Dendrolimus sibiricus, a moth that can produce colonies capable of devouring the foliage of a giant pine tree in a few hours, rendering the forest even more vulnerable to fires.

“What’s happening in Siberia affects us too. If there are areas that thaw and emit carbon, temperatures increase globally, not just regionally,” said Séjourné.

“Increasing temperatures means increased melting of glaciers, melting of the polar ice caps in Antarctica, Greenland. And then sea levels rise.”

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