Permafrost Thaw in Siberia Creates a Ticking ‘Methane Bomb’ of Greenhouse Gases, Scientists Warn

In 2020, temperatures in the region rose nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, causing the limestone to release ancient methane deposits

Limestone outcrop on the Taymyr Peninsula in North Siberia
Permafrost covers 65 percent of Russian lands, but it’s melting fast. © Mikhail Alekseev via University of Bonn

In recent years, climate scientists have warned thawing permafrost in Siberia may be a “methane time bomb” detonating slowly. Now, a peer-reviewed study using satellite imagery and a review by an international organization are warning that warming temperatures in the far northern reaches of Russia are releasing massive measures of methane—a potent greenhouse gas with considerably more warming power than carbon dioxide.

“It’s not good news if it’s right,” Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, who was not involved in either report, tells Steve Mufson of the Washington Post. “Nobody wants to see more potentially nasty feedbacks and this is potentially one.”

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, the study of satellite photos of a previously unexplored site in Siberia detected large amounts of methane being released from exposed limestone. A heat wave in 2020 was responsible for the emissions along two large strips of rock formations in the Yenisey-Khatanga Basin, located several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Lead author Nikolaus Froitzheim, a geoscientist at the University of Bonn in Germany, is concerned about his study’s findings. Interpreting this data correctly “may make the difference between catastrophe and apocalypse” as the climate crisis worsens, he tells Tara Yarlagadda of Inverse.

In 2020, temperatures in the basin rose nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, causing the limestone to release ancient methane deposits that had been trapped inside. The data caught Fritzheim and other researchers by surprise, who anticipated finding gas in other locations.

“We would have expected elevated methane in areas with wetlands,” he tells the Washington Post. “But these were not over wetlands but on limestone outcrops. There is very little soil in these. It was really a surprising signal from hard rock, not wetlands.”

Another report echoes these anxieties. Published by the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), it calls for a “global state of emergency” as temperatures continue to climb in Siberia and other Arctic regions. Permafrost covers 65 percent of Russian lands, but it’s melting fast.

“Scientists have been shocked that the warm weather conducive to permafrost thawing is occurring roughly 70 years ahead of model projections,” the CCAG warning states. It also points out that the Arctic could lose 89 percent of its permafrost by 2100, the Moscow Times reports.

The CCAG report cautions that warming temperatures could be pushing the Arctic toward an “irreversible” tipping point, causing the release of methane and other gases, as well as crumbling infrastructure in Siberia, including dams and a nuclear power plant.

“The story is simple,” the report concludes. “Climate change is happening faster than anticipated. One consequence—the loss of ice in the polar regions—is also a driver for more rapid global heating and disastrously rapid global sea level rise.”