climate change

Dire warnings as the Arctic Circle sets new temperature record


Locals taking in the record warm weather recorded in Siberia. Photo credit: Kirill Kukhmar / TASS.

By Anders Lorenzen

New data has confirmed that the Arctic region is warming faster than anywhere in the world. 

A temperature of 45 degrees C would be considered very hot anywhere in the northern hemisphere, but on the 19th of June, this was the land surface temperature measured in several places in Siberia, within the Arctic Circle. This should be seen in conjunction with the temperature in Vehojansk, also in Siberia, where they had a heatwave with air temperatures measuring 38 degrees C. 

These temperature records are just the latest development in a year that has been much warmer than average in Siberia. The EU body, Climate Copernicus, has been investigating an unusually mild winter and spring in Siberia. Their investigation found that from January onwards the whole region, normally known as a cold and hostile place, experienced warmer than usual temperatures.

They explained, that this heatwave demonstrates that the experience of warming the planet is not evenly spread out. As a region, Siberia warms faster than average. And it has long been a fact that climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world. Scientists believe that the Siberian heatwave which started in May is typical of that trend. Even though temperature anomalies are not unexpected, what makes this case unusual is for how long the warmer-than-average period has persisted.

These temperature records reported in several parts of Siberia are setting off more wildfires, even across peatlands which are normally waterlogged.  Because Siberia is such a remote and unpopulated area, the putting out of such fires is very difficult. Scientists fear the blazes are the early signs of drier conditions, with more frequent wildfires which will release stored carbon from the peatland and forests and as a result increase the number of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. 

Satellite records for the region did not start before 2003, but they suggest there has been a dramatic jump in emissions from Arctic fires during the last two summers. The combined emissions released in June 2019 & June 2020 are already greater than during all the June months from 2013-2018 put together. In addition, atmospheric records dating back more than a century, show Arctic air temperatures also reaching new heights in recent years.

This heatwave also makes scientists worried about a critical climate change tipping point, caused by the thawing permafrost which is melting faster than expected.  This will result in the release of even larger quantities of CO2 and methane than are already being released by the fires. 

Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics offered a dire warning: “What we’re seeing happening right now is the consequence of the past. What will happen in 40 years’ time is already locked in. We can’t do anything about that. That’s why we should be concerned; it can only get worse.”

The significance of peatland is overshadowed by forests in terms of the attention it gets.  But even though it only covers 3% of the Earth’s land surface those deposits contain twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. 

Since the 1970s, the Arctic sea ice has lost 70% of its summer volume, and last year it witnessed one of its lowest ice covers on record. 

May 2020 was the warmest May month ever recorded in Siberia.


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