The largest ever Arctic oil spill has drawn attention to warming related feedback loops. The recent Siberian oil spill was caused by thawing permafrost which caused ground subsidence under a storage tank. This is a pervasive problem in Russia as 65 percent of the country is covered by permafrost. Fires and melting sea ice are two additional feedback loops that exacerbate Arctic warming.
The May, 29, 2020 spill near the Siberian city of Norilsk in the Arctic Circle leaked 21,000 tons of diesel oil into the Ambarnaya river and turned the water blood red. Within days the leaked oil drifted more 12km (7.5 miles) from the site contaminating a 350 sq. km (135 sq. mile) area including another connected river. The spill has reached lake Pyasino Arctic glacial lake. Lake Pyasino is a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is vitally important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. The Pyasina River flows into the Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. Greenpeace has compared the spill to the Exxon Valdez disaster
As the leading source of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions fossil fuels are problematic but they are far more problematic in the Arctic. Spills in the Arctic are difficult to cleanup and they have a devastating impact on the fragile Arctic ecosystem. According to Russian authorities even with clean-up efforts that will last for years the river will never fully recover. As explained by Dmitry Klokov the head of Russia’s fishing agency, this is an an “ecological catastrophe”. Klokov said, “it will take decades for the restoration of the ecological balance of the affected Norilo-Pyasinsky water system” but the river will never be the same.
Greenpeace to declare that the Arctic is in a death spiral and this has serious implications for the region and the globe. Arctic warming is a global concern that adversely impacts global weather patterns and may push us past tipping points from which we will not be able to recover.
The unprecedented Arctic heatwaves that we saw in 2019 are part of a warming trend that is disproportionately affecting the far north. The Arctic has warmed much more than the global average which is around 1° C (1.8° F). Some parts of the Arctic have recorded temperature increases of 3 to 4 °C (5.40 to 7.20 °F). Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the continental U.S. and Canada, home to 40 percent of the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world. The world’s oceans are also heating up but nowhere is the warming more pronounced than in the Arctic. A WMO report indicates that in recent years parts of Arctic Russia, temperatures were 6°C to 7°C above the long-term average..
Warming Arctic temperatures are releasing carbon and methane, the two most serious GHGs. Melting permafrost on land and the sea floor has been described as a ticking time bomb prompting scientists to declare a state of emergency. For years scientists have observed massive quantities of methane emanating from melting ice on the sea floor in the Arctic.
Melting permafrost on land is another major concern. This permafrost covers around 8 percent of the Arctic land surface (approximately 1.9 million square kilometers) and contains 1,500 billion tons of carbon. This is half the global total of ground carbon and around twice the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere. According to a NASA study the rate at which carbon is released from the permafrost into the atmosphere is accelerating. The study concluded that Arctic carbon spends less time locked in frozen soil that it did four decades ago.
Arctic warming is fueling a feedback loop that increasing fires and exacerbating warming. Arctic fires are particularly harmful to the climate because the burning of peat on the Arctic tundra releases vast amounts of trapped carbon.
This problem appears to be getting worse. In 2019 we saw a dramatic increase in Arctic fires. Last June Arctic wildfires emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide. As of July there were more than 100 wildfires burning across the Arctic Circle. Some of these fires spanned almost a quarter of a million acres. In Alaska alone almost 400 wildfires ravaged 600,000 acres. Fires in Russia, including hundreds of fires in Siberia released 300,000 megatons of carbon dioxide in July. The GHG emissions from the 2019 Arctic fires eclipsed the cumulative total of all GHG emissions from Arctic fires in the previous decade.
These fires also produce black carbon which settles on the Arctic ice. This causes sunlight to be absorbed rather than reflected back in space through a process known as the albedo effect. The absorption of sunlight further increases warming.
Melting sea ice
Global warming is decreasing sea ice and this increases both the absorption of sunlight and temperatures. Sea ice extent for May 2020 averaged 12.36 million square kilometers (4.77 million square miles), placing it in the fourth lowest extent in the satellite record for the month. This was 930,000 square kilometers (359,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 May average.
Ice is disappearing in the Arctic and we will soon see summers completely devoid of sea ice. As explained scientist Walt Meierhere there is not much doubt about why this is happening, “climate change is the overriding thing” Meierhere said.
Four Oil and Gas Spills that are Worse than we Thought
KXL Pipeline Leak Highlights Serious Dangers and Questionable Economic Value
Partial Summary of Oil Spills in 2016
Repeated Spills Show the Soulless Self-Interest of Fossil Fuel Companies