Freezing to show warming trend
Though dismissed in Russia, scientist's climate research in remote Siberia is heating up discussions in the West
By Alex Rodriguez
12:38 AM CDT, May 5, 2008, Chicago Tribune
CHERSKY, Russia — Sergei Zimov waded through knee-deep snow to reach a frozen lake where so much methane belches out of the melting permafrost that it spews from the ice like small geysers.
In the frigid twilight, the Russian scientist struck a match to make a jet of the greenhouse gas visible. The sudden plume of fire threw him backward. Zimov stood up, brushed the snow off his parka and beamed.
"Sometimes a big explosion happens, because the gas comes out like a bomb," Zimov said. "There are a million lakes like this in northern Siberia."
In a country where many scientists scoff at the existence of global warming, Zimov has been waging a lonely campaign to warn the world about Russia's melting permafrost and its nexus with climate change. His laboratory is the vast expanse of tundra and larch forest along the East Siberian Sea, an icy corner of the world that Zimov has scrutinized almost entirely on his own for 28 years.
Far from the archetypal scientist, the beefy, 53-year-old Russian with a mound of gray-brown hair and piercing blue eyes reigns over his patch of Siberia not with pipette and beaker, but with the swagger of a Cossack and an encyclopedic knowledge of his surroundings.
Kitchen conversations with visiting scientists about the region's geology are regularly interrupted by rounds of vodka shots. He doesn't touch computers and never wears a watch. If he reads science literature, "it's something a friend sends me or something I got at a forum."
"How I check e-mail? I sit in my chair and my wife reads me e-mail," Zimov said.
While his research has gone largely ignored by Russia's scientific community, it's turning heads in the West.
American science journals have published his findings, and grants from the National Science Foundation and the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation-Russia) fund much of his work.
Among Zimov's findings: The release of greenhouse gases — particularly methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide—from thawing permafrost underneath Siberian lakes could accelerate global warming and represents an especially worrisome trend in the battle to slow climate change.
"He clearly knows what he's doing," said Thomas Grenfell, a University of Washington professor who along with colleague Stephen Warren recently carried out their own climate fieldwork at Zimov's station. "Everyone is worried about global warming, and this is one of the places where you would notice things most strongly."
Few places in the world can provide stark evidence of global warming like the peat bogs, lakes and woodlands that stretch eight time zones along Russia's north Siberian coastline.
Melting permafrost awakens dormant microbes that devour thousands of tons of organic carbon, creating methane as a byproduct if no oxygen is present. Subsoil layers of ice also are melting, leaving dips and domes across the landscape and turning roads into mogul runs.
Few places in the world are as harsh and remote as Chersky, a ramshackle cluster of dilapidated Soviet-era apartment buildings and scrap metal yards 93 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Chersky's winters subject locals to three months of darkness and temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. Summers bring on swarms of mosquitoes. Everything from potatoes to snowmobile parts must be shipped in by air.
Zimov said he cannot think of any place he would rather be.
"It doesn't matter where I sleep — I sleep on the bed. Where this bed is located doesn't matter," he said. "If it's too cold, I work on papers. If it's good weather, I work in the field. If you've got a good car and good clothes, you'll be fine here."
In 1980, Zimov was a 25-year-old scientist drawn to the study of permafrost when he began building his research station in Chersky, back then a bustling Soviet seaport just south of the mouth of the Kolyma River. The science lured him, but so did the freedom that came with being so far from Moscow's grasp. He moved his family there and never looked back.
'Absolutely free life'
"We lived without electricity, which meant no television and no communist propaganda," Zimov said. "It was beautiful. It was an absolutely free life."
Like the rest of Russia, Zimov and his wife, Galina, scraped by in the decade after the Soviet collapse in 1991, enduring months when paychecks never arrived and relying on what they could hunt, fish and grow in their greenhouses. Today, millions of dollars in grants from the West and from the Russian Science Foundation have turned Zimov's station into a hive of science.
The money has enabled Zimov to amass ample infrastructure to scrutinize every facet of the permafrost environment: data collection towers that measure the release of carbon dioxide and methane from the soil, bore holes to measure changes in permafrost temperature, even a seaplane that can be used to collect weather data.
The field work is grueling. Because of the harsh conditions, Zimov has to station one of his five workers near the data-collection towers virtually round-the-clock to maintain them and cull information from them weekly. For Marat Ilyasov, 28, that means living day and night inside a tiny, one-room cabin amid a wasteland of snow, alone and a two-hour walk from town.
He gets food delivered by snowmobile, has a walkie-talkie for emergencies and relies on a stack of books to keep him occupied.
"I don't need communication with other people so often," Ilyasov said with a sigh, "so this is a good job for me."
In Siberia, the permafrost entombs billions of tons of organic matter from the Ice Age, when northern Russia's steppe teemed with mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, musk oxen and other wildlife. Dormant for millennia, the permafrost is being thawed by global warming, triggering the microbial consumption that results in the release of greenhouse gases.
The process feeds on itself. As the climate warms, permafrost on the banks of Siberian lakes collapses into the water, supplying bacteria with more organic material to consume and further raising the level of methane released into the air.
The melting of permafrost cannot be stopped, Zimov said, but it could be slowed.
Not far from the research station is a 40,000-acre tract of wilderness that Zimov believes could one day turn the tide against permafrost thaw. He calls it Pleistocene Park, after the Ice Age epoch when mammoths roamed Siberia.
Zimov is reintroducing the grasses and herbivores that dominated northern Siberian steppes 10,000 years ago, and he plans to bulldoze portions of the park's larch forest and shrubland. Foxtail and cotton grass are taking root, providing fodder for Yakutian horses, reindeer, musk oxen and bison Zimov envisions on the park's flatlands.
Steppe terrain inhibits permafrost thaw because it retains less heat than forests and lakes, and because grass-eating mammals pack down the snow as they graze, lessening the snow's ability to insulate the soil and keep it warmer.
It's nothing less than the creation of a new ecosystem, a daunting task aimed at building a bulwark against global warming. It will take years before the park's herds are large enough to make a discernible difference. But Zimov hopes the park serves as a template for similar efforts across Siberia's warming permafrost.