Guest columnist Guy Lanza: Siberia one of the best areas to study climate change

Published: 3/29/2021 8:15:26 AM

Siberia – a place known for its historic gulags is now a global center for climate change research.

Mention Siberia and the word gulag usually comes to mind. But as a research scientist living in Amherst, I view the gulags as past history and consider Siberia one of the best areas to study climate change. Why? Because the temperatures in Siberia and other Arctic regions are increasing to much higher levels than other places around the globe.

The dramatic Arctic temperature change is referred to by climate scientists as the Arctic Amplitude, with some regions warming at four times the global average. Changes in cloud cover, increased atmospheric water vapor, more atmospheric heat transport from lower latitudes, and declining sea ice have all been suggested as contributing factors. One result of the Arctic Amplitude is its negative effect on the frozen permafrost soils characteristic of the northern regions. The permafrost soils of northern Siberia are rapidly thawing and releasing once frozen microorganisms and carbon material. In terms of climate change, this is the perfect storm.

A staggering one-third of the carbon stored in the soil of the world is in permafrost. The frozen permafrost layer forms a barrier and acts like a trapdoor regulating the release of carbon stored underground. When the soil is frozen, carbon is trapped below ground along with inactive microorganisms. When thawing occurs, the microorganisms become active, use the carbon as a food source and open the trapdoor releasing potent greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. This in turn increases the climate change impacts that lead to more permafrost thawing. A classic environmental cascade.

Land use patterns in Western Siberia add to the problems caused by the Arctic Amplitude. Western Siberia is home to one of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Russia has been developing this profitable fossil fuel source since the 1960s. The region is also the home of the Yamal-Nenets Indigenous people, the largest remaining nomadic pastoral group active in the Arctic. The Yamal-Nenets are master reindeer herders and breeders who move their herds across the summer tundra pastures to graze. Reindeer grazing, along with the inevitable ground trampling that accompanies it, changes the soil and the vegetation causing an unsustainable imbalance in the natural system. Over grazing and energy development have resulted in negative ecological effects on nearby sand dunes causing wind erosion and inhibited revegetation. These impacts increase climate change by upsetting the balance of carbon dioxide uptake and release by soil and plants, and further increase the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

During the summer of 2019, I team-taught an interdisciplinary human ecology class for international students that included field work in northern Siberia. We visited the site of one of Joseph Stalin’s last 1950s era gulag camps. The camp used forced labor to build a railroad and the site visit gave the students a glimpse into the hardships that characterized the gulag era. Today, Siberia is on the front lines of efforts to meet the challenge of global climate change and has emerged as a valuable natural laboratory to study the impacts of permafrost thawing. Adapting to climate change will require new strategies to restore damaged soil ecosystems. Restoration is key to our ability to manage and repair the damage from climate change events. Introducing international students to the challenges we all face with adaption to climate change is critical to future success.

The Russian Ministry of Science and Education recognizes the urgency of understanding and addressing the challenges of permafrost thawing in Siberia. Their response was to fund a new soil research laboratory called “TerrArctic.” The TerrArctic lab will led by Professor Yakov Kuzyakov a soil scientist at the University of Gottingen in Germany. The project will measure the potential for carbon storage in the subarctic and arctic zone soils of Western Siberia. The data obtained will be applied to mathematical models that will simulate and help to predict the rapidly changing future impacts of climate change.

Yakov will establish the lab at the University of Tyumen in Western Siberia and direct an interdisciplinary team of 10 scientists to carry out the research over the next five years. Nine of the scientists are from Germany and Russia, I am the sole American on the team, and I’m excited and optimistic about the outcomes of the TerrArctic project. Training interdisciplinary climate scientists for the future is rewarding and being a small part of this project is pure pleasure!

Guy Lanza is a research professor in the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry at SUNY, Syracuse. He lives in Amherst and works from his home office, telecommuting to the SUNY campus.


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