Three million years ago, as continent-size glaciers pulsed down from the poles, temperatures in Siberia plunged to minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit and vast stretches of soil froze underground. As the planet cycled between glacial and interglacial periods, much of that frozen ground thawed, only to freeze again, dozens of times. Around eleven and a half millennia ago, the last ice age gave way to the current interglacial period, and temperatures began to rise. The soil that remained frozen year-round came to be known as permafrost. It now lies beneath nine million square miles of Earth’s surface, a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. Russia has the world’s largest share: two-thirds of the country’s territory sits on permafrost.
In Yakutia, where the permafrost can be nearly a mile deep, annual temperatures have risen by more than two degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, twice the global average. As the air gets hotter, so does the soil. Deforestation and wildfire—both acute problems in Yakutia—remove the protective top layer of vegetation and raise temperatures underground even more.
Over thousands of years, the frozen earth swallowed up all manner of organic material, from tree stumps to woolly mammoths. As the permafrost thaws, microbes in the soil awaken and begin to feast on the defrosting biomass. It’s a funky, organic process, akin to unplugging your freezer and leaving the door open, only to return a day later to see that the chicken breasts in the back have begun to rot. In the case of permafrost, this microbial digestion releases a constant belch of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientific models suggest that the permafrost contains one and a half trillion tons of carbon, twice as much as is currently held in Earth’s atmosphere.
Timber reserves in Siberia will last no more than 30 years at the current rate of production. The forest is no longer restored.
One of the most important problems is a forthcoming shortage of forest resources. Many do not understand this forthcoming disaster, and the reserves which were present 50–70 years ago, when the timber industry was started here, will be exhausted.
Shortage is associated with an increase in the number of forest fires, spread of insect pests and irrational deforestation. Reforestation is no longer implemented in the suitable areas currently occupied by shrubs.
Loggers are moving to the north, where the forest is restored much more slowly.
Siberian forests make one of the main contributions into the carbon regulation on the Earth, since, in fact, they preserve it in soil.
Do you think these are important problems and how do you think they should be solved?