NASA: Another brutally hot year for the Siberian tundra

Unfortunately, the greatest warming in 2008 came in the worst possible place for humanity — the Siberian tundra. That’s clear from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies report on the meteorological year, December 2007 through November 2008:


The remarkably widespread warming in the land of the permafrost permamelt should be the big global warming story because:

  • The permafrost contains as much carbon as the atmosphere, and it is increasingly not so perma (see Tundra, Part 1).
  • Siberian tundra contains probably the world’s largest amount of carbon locked away in the permafrost.
  • As it defrosts, much of the tundra’s carbon would be released as methane, which is twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • “The year 2007 was the warmest on record for the Arctic,” according to NOAA.
  • NOAA reported that methane levels rose in 2007 for the first time since 1998 (see here).
  • Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands (see here).
  • The tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks that the IPCC models, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm (see Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return).

While the permafrost warming may well be the biggest story to come out of the annual global temperature reports, needless to say the media have ignored that story as far as I can tell. They have also ignored the now clear evidence that the 2000s are easily the hottest decade in recorded history and instead focused has been almost exclusively on where 2008 ranks among recent years temperature-wise. NASA did weigh in on that with this figure:


So 2008 is warmer than any year last century but the El Ni±o-enhanced 1998, and about 0.1°C warmer than the 1990s as a whole. NASA adds:

Finally, we note that we provide the rank of global temperature for individual years because there is a high demand for it from journalists and the public. The rank has scientific significance in some cases, e.g., when a new record is established. However, otherwise rank has limited value and can be misleading. Note that, given our estimated error bar in Figure 1, we can only say that 2008 probably ranks as somewhere between the 7th and 12th warmest year.

NASA explains the 2008 temperature was “a bit cooler” (about 0.1°C) than the 2001-2007 mean because of the La Ni±a in the first half of the year, which is clearly seen in the figure at the top of this post. For ENSO junkies (you know who you are), NASA provides this figure (click to enlarge):


Figure 2, at right. Top: Seasonal-mean global and low latitude temperature anomalies relative to 1951-1980 base period. (Click for large GIF or PDF.) Bottom: Monthly-mean global-ocean surface temperature anomaly, based on satellite temperature analyses of Reynolds et al. (Click for large GIF or PDF.)

Figure 2 (top) provides seasonal resolution of global and low latitude surface temperature, and an index that measures the state of the natural tropical temperature oscillation. The figure indicates that the La Ni±a cool cycle peaked in early 2008. The global effect of the tropical oscillation is made clear by the average temperature anomaly over the global ocean (Figure 2, bottom). The “El Ni±o of the century”, in 1997-98, stands out, as well as the recent La Ni±a.

Enough data for you?

13 Responses to NASA: Another brutally hot year for the Siberian tundra

  1. alex says:

    Before I start – this is not a “denier” post!

    One of the problems is that the media only get excited when records are broken, which is not very often. In the UK climate change has virtually disappeared off the news this year because it has been relatively cool here. In fact the BBC were reporting today that the start of this winter has been the coolest for 30 years.

  2. That’s a terrible picture of the warming in the Siberian Tundra.

    One minor correction, “So 2008 is warmer than any year last century but the El Niño-enhanced 2008” – the second 2008 should be 1998 (I am amazed how few typos you have given the pace that you publish your work).

    Merry Christmas and thanks for your great work this year.

    [JR: Thanks. Yes, this week there is simply too much to blog on. One reason I don’t have more typos is that I use a voice dictation software — that does mean that I occasionally make strange homophone type mistakes … not that there’s anything wrong with that :)]

  3. And evidence is accumulating that even the undersea permafrost is giving up its methane.

    “While Semiletov said he couldn’t predict the worst would happen based on his current data, the melting of the world’s subsea permafrost could triple the atmosphere’s current share of methane, which would be “enough for a climate catastrophe,” he said – that is, an average global temperature increase of up to 6 degrees Celsius.”


  4. Gareth says:

    I’ll bow to no man in my concern about Siberian warming, but there’s another 2.5C+ region down south that is just as worrying – over the western “root” of the Antarctic Peninsula. Wilkins. Pine Island Glacier. West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Where SLR has nothing to do with photography…

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke, the interesting members of my family, sailed to Antarctica for the third time about two years ago (Hovgaard Island, on Palmer Peninsula). The amount of ice loss was stupefying. Ditto for Chilean Patagonia.

    Just anecdotal, but it sure matches up with the map above.

    Meanwhile, I hate it when feedbacks push us into a huge disaster. Makes it hard to keep your sense of humor.

  6. alex says:

    Why is Siberia so hot and Canada is not? It is a pity it isn’t the other way round, then people might be a bit more concerned.

  7. Sam says:

    Yikes! A minor correction. Well, actually I’m just trying to test my own understanding of GWPs. You say that methane is “twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.” I think it might be more accurate to say that it is 62 times more powerful over a 20 year period, and 20x more powerful over a hundred year period (since it has a residence life of about 12 years, and breaks down into CO2 and H20). I was taught that GWPs have to be stated with a time period to be accurate. The 62x number is much worse than the 20x because it means more warming is frontloaded, which will set the feedbacks in motion more quickly and more viciously than it otherwise would. If I recall correctly, I got this from Jonathan Cowie’s book, Climate Change, where he also talks about the possibility of a PETM redux.

  8. David Lewis says:

    The very recent December 2008 USGS report “Abrupt Climate Change” has a chapter on methane. For what its worth, Chapter 5 “Potential for Abrupt Changes in Atmospheric Methane” states its “key findings” right off the bat.

    finding 3. “There are a number of suggestions in the scientific literature about the possibility of catastrophic release of methane to the atmosphere based on both the size of the hydrate reservoir and indirect evidence from paleoclimatological studies. However, modeling and detailed studies of ice core methane so far do not support catastrophic methane releases to the atmosphere in the last 650,000 years or in the near future. A very large release of methane may have occurred at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (about 55 million years ago), but other explanations for the evidence have been offered.”

    finding 4. “The current network of atmospheric methane monitoring sites is sufficient for capturing large-scale changes in emissions, but it is insufficient for attributing changes in emissions to one specific type of source.”

    finding 5. “Observations show that there have not yet been significant increases in methane emissions from northern terrestrial high-latitude hydrates and wetlands resulting from increasing Arctic temperatures.”


    finding 6. “Catastrophic release of methane to the atmosphere appears very unlikely in the near term (e.g., this century). However, it is very likely that climate change will accelerate the pace of chronic emissions from both hydrate sources and wetlands. The magnitude of these releases is difficult to estimate with existing data. Methane release from the hydrate reservoir will likely have a significant influence on global warming over the next 1,000 to 100,000 years.”

    As far as Canadian awareness of climate change goes, its looking pretty bleak up here. The last federal election featured one party, the Liberals, who had been in office longer in the 20th century than any other party in any other developed country, go down to one of its worst defeats because they put a carbon tax at the center of their campaign. I just heard a Canadian Broadcasting Corp radio panel discussion on the Bush legacy, and his climate record was not mentioned.

  9. jorleh says:

    I notice the rather red continues to Finland as is the fact. In Finland 100 000 km2 peat bogs (not exactly tundra) has been converted for agriculture and industrial forests during 150 years. They say that peat bogs in such use emit greenhouse gases 30 times more than the soil functions as carbon sink?

  10. David…

    I’ve just started a project to try to get climate change on the radar in the Great White North. It’s early days yet… The web site is active, but we’re still finalizing the design, and we’ll be adding content regularly (which includes a blog).

    We’re supporting the coalition — having a leader who believes the science has to be better than having one who thinks climate change is a socialist plot — and we’re hoping to create another coalition of environmental, social, and even religious groups to speak together with one voice in Canada…This has been working very well in Scotland.

    I’m new to this… I have no training as an activist, and very little money, but I want to see if I can help make a difference. Keep an eye out for us.

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    Alex -“Why is Siberia so hot and Canada is not?”

    I don’t know, but I notice that there seems to be a much larger land mass in northern Europe/Asia than northern America.

    That might be a good place to start looking for an answer.

  12. ZZMike says:

    All this probably explains the severe cold front that’s moved down from Siberia to the Western US, and other places.

    [JR: Rest of this deleted because “It’s cold outside” as a response to climate science is now officially more sad than funny.]

  13. tt says:

    During the last interglacial c. 125,000 years ago temperatures in northern Siberia were 5-10+ degrees warmer than now over a period of several thousand years. Most of the permafrost melted and forest grew up to the Arctic Coast (for a review of the climate and vegetation data see e. g. Velichko, Borisova & Zelikson, Boreas 37: 1-19 (2008)) . No notable methane release resulted. This suggests to me that the methane release effect is vastly overrated. It is after all largely hypothetical, there seems to be essentially no empirical data.