Putin and Permafrost, My Alarmed Hot Arctic Observations

In January, President Biden spoke about the situation in Ukraine with the almost throw-away message to President Putin, as interpreted by New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman: You think Ukraine is a mess, wait until all the Permafrost melts beneath Siberia. Perhaps Biden had read The New Yorker and its January 17, 2022 article, “The Great Thaw” by Joshua Yaffa.

And/or maybe Biden got an early look at the PBS Nova special about the weird world of Permafrost and the tendency for the land to experience methane explosions as it warms.

I formed my own alarmed impressions during two visits to the Arctic.

I accompanied a 2009 expedition to the edges of the Barnes Ice Cap on Baffin Island in the beautiful Canadian province of Nunavut. Three brief observations:

What I Experienced in the Arctic

The author standing beside Aylmer Lake cairn built by Ernest Thompson Seton in 1907

I saw distant thunderstorms punctuated by lightning. Apparently, lighting used to be relatively rare over the tundra, but not anymore.

Glaciers trailing off the giant ice cap were retreating at a fast, apparently unprecedented rate, creating furious torrents of water into what decades earlier had been relatively placid watercourses. This melting as continued apace since I was there.

I kept hearing what sounded like thunder on cloudless days. I finally determined that I was hearing the sound of collapsing ice caves from within the interior of the massive ice cap.

My trip to the western Arctic in 2015 took me to the magnificent Aylmer Lake (80 miles or so south of the Arctic Ocean) in following the footsteps and canoe strokes of Ernest Thompson Seton who visited this secluded place in 1907. Two observations:

Flying over the tundra, I looked down seeing burned patches of forest (south of the tundra-forest treeline) punctuated by frozen lakes. Freezing and burning in the same places. Disconcerting.

Too Warm

Nighttime low temperatures on the shoreline of the lake were warmer than the recorded temperatures in Taos, New Mexico. Frightening.

Huge areas of Canada, Alaska, Russia, and the Nordic countries are underlain by Permafrost. Instability there, from human infrastructure collapse to methane release could prove more catastrophic for Putin than any other issue he faces, according to the experts. (As well as all the other northern countries and all the other countries in the world.)

Meantime, the American southwest is currently in the midst of its worst drought in 1200 years. The Ancestral Puebloans who lived through the last one, are probably even now trying to get our attention to this.

Also in the meantime, to keep track of the Arctic, check out the EOS science news site for articles on a range of environmental issues.

And, for all things Arctic, follow arctic.gov including the daily newsletter I subscribe to (free) following all manner of developments from around the Arctic Circle.

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