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Siberia’s permafrost melts

June 2, 2010

From Stanford

In Soviet times, Siberia’s Kolyma River basin was the destination of enemies of the state. Even today, the Kolyma highway is called the “Road of Bones,” because the life expectancy of a prisoner there was just one winter and the bones of the fallen were buried in the road itself. Now, oddly enough, the Kolyma is earning its place in the annals of world history for a mass killing that happened here some 20,000 years earlier. When the prisoners scraped away moss to build the road, they were scraping away insulation keeping the permafrost frozen. In the past decade the underlying ice has vanished, leaving canyons as deep as the trucks that used to pace these roads. And in the canyon walls, mixed with ice and silt, are the bones of deer, horses, oxen, bison, rhinoceros, cave lions and mammoth. Mixed with the bones are hair and dung and skin. Hundreds of centuries since these animals were felled, bugs have found their flesh, and they are going to work. It stinks.

This vast supply of organic matter in the Texas-size Kolyma basin’s unique soil, called yedoma, threatens to undermine the very foundations of civilization. Since the beginning of the industrial age, humans have released some 450 billion tons of carbon in fossil fuels, a lapse of judgment or understanding that already commits us to the greatest warming known in the past 55 million years—the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high. That warming is catalyzing the collapse of the yedoma carbon bank, whose deposits total 500 billion tons. This carbon is pouring into the atmosphere as I write.

Like all roads in these parts, the Kolyma highway cuts through a larch forest, yellow conifers in fall colors above a thick carpet of moss, lichen and low bushes with berries. In the midst of this tranquil scene is a 20-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser buried in the moguls of mud left behind by the thawed ice, wheels spinning backward, car going nowhere. Sergei Zimov (his last name testifies to a man of winter) drove this vehicle from Vladivostok, some 2,000 roadless miles to the south, in the dead of winter. And now we are walking away from this scene, leaving the windows open and the keys in the ignition—Zimov is perhaps the only man in the history of Russian civilization to do that. He calls his son, Nikita, on the satellite phone to bring the other truck and rescue us. Nikita, 23, is the heir to an empire Sergei has built with his wife, Galina, whom he persuaded to settle at the mouth of the Kolyma about 30 years ago.

From Stanford

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