One of the coldest places on earth last weekend became one of the hottest when a small town in northern Siberia registered a temperature of 38 Celsius, – another alarming high point in a freak heatwave that has gripped Russia for the past several days.
If verified, Verkhoyansk – a town with a little more than 1,000 people nearly 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow – will claim the hottest temperature ever recorded in Siberia, as well as the hottest temperature ever seen north of the Arctic Circle, which begins at 66.5°N latitude.
Siberia, accounting for 77 percent of Russia’s landmass, has recently been rocked by the effects of climate change. The prolonged hot spell has been linked to wildfires, crop failures brought on by drought, pest infestations – and perhaps even an oil spill caused by melting permafrost.
On a global scale, Siberia’s rising mercury is helping nudge the world toward the hottest year on record, despite a temporary dip in carbon emissions brought on by worldwide coronavirus lockdowns.
Typically, Verkhoyansk, which is farther north than Fairbanks, Alaska, is known better as one of the coldest places in the world. Last November, temperatures in the town plunged to minus 50 degrees Celsius, making it one of the first spots to drop that low in the winter of 2019-2020.
There are still questions about the accuracy of the weekend’s 38 degree reading, which was recorded by the Pogoda i Klimat weather portal in Verkhoyansk on June 20, The Moscow Times reported. But the Washington Post indicates that a weather balloon launched on Saturday found unusually high temperatures in the lower atmosphere, which would support Pogoda i Klimat’s reading. By Sunday, said the Post report, Verkhoyansk again recorded temperatures above 35 Celsius.
Should the record-setting reading be verified, it will break the 37.5 Celsius record set in June 1915 at Fort Yukon, Alaska. Jeff Berardelli, a climate specialist with CBS News in the United States, wrote that such temperatures near the Arctic are “almost unheard of.”
Verkhoyansk’s soaring temperatures come on the heels of Russia’s hottest winter ever. In December, temperatures were so high that Moscow officials resorted to trucking in artificial snow to decorate the Russian capital’s New Year’s displays. Then, earlier this month, Moscow broke a 128-year-old heat record for June 17, hitting 31 Celsius, said the official Interfax news agency. The previous record, set in 1892, was 30.8.
Siberian temperatures have been higher than normal all spring, with some towns in the Arctic Circle beating their previous records by double digits. Nizhnaya Pesha, in the Nenets Autonomous Region, hit 30 Celsius on June 9, the Guardian reported. Khatanga, far above the Arctic Circle on Siberia’s far eastern edge, usually hovers around 0 degrees Celsius this time of year. But on May 22, it reached 25 Celsius – beating its previous spring record of 12 Celsius.
Martin Stendel, a climate scientist the Danish Meteorological Institute, said on Twitter that the abnormal May temperatures seen in Siberia would be likely to happen just once in 100,000 years without human-caused global heating.
Berardelli noted that the average heat levels Siberia has seen between January and May match what current climate models project will be normal temperatures for the region by 2100.
“Due to heat trapping greenhouse gases that result from the burning of fossil fuels and feedback loops, the Arctic is warming at more than two times the average rate of the globe,” he explained in his analysis of the Verkhoyansk reading. “This phenomenon is known as Arctic Amplification, which is leading to the decline of sea ice, and in some cases snow cover, due to rapidly warming temperatures.”
Andrei Kiselev, Ph.D., a leading climatologist at the Voeikov Geophysical Observatory in St. Petersburg, told The Moscow Times that it’s no longer possible to prevent climate change altogether and that efforts to adapt to the changing climate should be prioritized instead.
“Special building technology can be developed for new constructions in permafrost zones,” he said. “And it will be necessary to adapt existing infrastructure to the changing environment.”
This was apparent near Norilsk, in north-central Siberia late last month. A fuel tank at a power plant collapsed, spilling more than 150,000 barrels of diesel oil into nearby lakes and rivers. It is thought that the permafrost foundation that the tank was built on may have begun to melt.
According to a 2018 report by Russia’s federal weather agency, the value of infrastructure built on permafrost – which accounts for more than 65 percent of Russia’s landmass – is $300 billion. That same report said more than 75,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines that traverse the country are built on permafrost, and that they will become more vulnerable to rupture as the frozen soil beneath them begins to thaw.