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“Frozenology”: Tony Wood reports from Siberia for the London Review of Books

Tamar Shlaim19 September 2010

Tony Wood's latest piece for the London Review of Books highlights how Russian permafrost could have massive consequences for the environment. Global warming is potentially causing it to melt at a significant pace, with the greenhouse gasses stored in its depths subsequently released into the atmosphere.

Whilst popular opinion in Russia tends to downplay notions of climate change, "Russian scientists are not divided over whether or not climate change is happening." And whilst warmer winters may bring some positive economic benefits as more land becomes cultivatable, Russian infrastructure could be irreparably compromised:

The varying character of the soil—its density, porosity, ice content—would produce wildly different outcomes from one patch of ground to the next. Whole areas could simply collapse as soon as the ice underpinning them melts away ...  Indeed, the same dangers threaten Siberia's oil and gas pipelines, which, according to one estimate cited by Greenpeace Russia, comprise a network with a total length of 350,000 kilometres. Thousands of accidents are caused each year by deformations or subsidence in the ground supporting the pipelines; many of them can be put down to heat spreading to the soil from the pipes, but the figure can only increase if the landscape undergoes the dramatic changes predicted by climate modellers.

Of more pressing global concern, the permafrost has also trapped vast quantities of methane gas which, as the ice melts, will be released into the atmosphere. Whilst scientists debate how significant an impact this would have on the planetary environment, there are concerns that the release of greenhouse gasses in such volumes would tip the atmospheric environment over the edge.

We could be pushed across the next threshold of global warming at any moment. Or it may already have happened: perhaps somewhere in the vast unpeopled expanses between the Urals and Alaska, a 40,000-year-old cloud of gas is already silently remaking our future.

Visit the London Review of Books to read the article in full.

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