Sergei Zimov bends down, picks up a handful of mud and holds it up to his nose. It smells like a cow patty, but he knows better. "It smells like mammoth dung," he says.Pretty much a doomsday scenario when you are talking about over 500 billion tons of manure (ok - organic detritus) defrosting. Actually a little bit of quick math indicates that the quantity of permafrost is likely even much greater than that, the 500 billion tons figure refers only to the carbon that could be potentially released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
For millennia, layers of animal waste and other organic matter left behind by the creatures that used to roam the Arctic tundra have been sealed inside the frozen permafrost. Now, climate change is thawing the permafrost and lifting this prehistoric ooze from suspended animation.
But Zimov, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' North Eastern Scientific station ... believes that as this organic matter becomes exposed to the air, it will accelerate global warming faster than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.
"This will lead to a type of global warming that will be impossible to stop," he said.
When the organic matter left behind by mammoths and other wildlife is exposed to the air by the thawing permafrost, his theory goes, microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years spring back into action. They emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct and -- even more damaging in terms of its impact on the climate -- methane gas.
"The deposits of organic matter in these soils are so gigantic that they dwarf global oil reserves," Zimov said. U.S. government statistics show mankind emits about 7 billion tons of carbon per year.
"Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tons of carbon, which can quickly turn into greenhouse gases," Zimov said. "If you don't stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere ... the Kyoto Protocol will seem like childish prattle."
"There's quite a bit of truth in it," said Julian Murton, member of the International Permafrost Association. "The methane and carbon dioxide levels will increase as a result of permafrost degradation."
A United Nations report in June said there was yet no sign of widespread melting of permafrost that could stoke global warming but noted the potential threat. "Permafrost stores a lot of carbon, with upper permafrost layers estimated to contain more organic carbon than is currently contained in the atmosphere," the report said. "Permafrost thawing results in the release of this carbon in the form of greenhouse gases, which will have a positive feedback effect to global warming."
... Places that five or 10 years ago were empty tundra are now dotted with lakes -- a result of thawing permafrost. These "thermokarst" lakes bubble with methane, over 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
The permafrost thaw affects those rare outposts where humans have settled. In Chersky, a town of 3,000 people, apartment blocks have cracks running through their walls as the earth beneath them subsides. Many have been demolished because they were no longer safe.
So few people live in or visit this wilderness that the changing landscape on its own is unlikely to worry people on the other side of the world. But Zimov warned that people everywhere should take notice, because within a few years, the effect of the permafrost melting in Siberia will have a direct impact on their lives.
"Siberia's landscape is changing," he said. "But in the end, local problems of the north will inevitably turn into the problems of Russia's south, the Amazon region or Holland."
Of course, I am left wondering how it is that all this methane has not been in the atmosphere all along, from periods when Siberia was not under permafrost. What mechanisms absorb or reduce methane in nature? Because for a long, long time before man was around, untold billions of pounds of manure were ... deposited ... in nature.
Save to del.icio.us