Paleontologists Discover Prehistoric Fossils as Thawing Permafrost Releases Devastating Amounts of Methane in Siberia

Melting ice within permafrost on the Siberian Arctic is uncovering many prehistoric secrets buried beneath thousand years old ice, including parts of mammoth tusk, woolly rhinoceros bone and perfectly preserved lion cub.

Record-breaking heatwaves have increased the melting of Siberian permafrost, releasing methane and uncovering prehistoric fossils of plants and animals. These animals once roamed the Arctic grasslands before becoming extinct – rhinos around 14,000 to 15,000 years ago and mammoths about 10,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.

Northeastern Siberia has experienced bigger than normal fires this summer amid record-breaking temperatures, consequently releasing a harmful amount of greenhouse gases that the peat has been absorbing for tens of thousands of years.

Scientists estimate that 1.7 billion tons of carbon is released annually by permafrost melting in the region between the months of October to April. The amount is almost twice as high as previous estimates and far exceeds the 1 billion tons of carbon soaked up during the growing season.

There is a lot of natural gas in the basement of Siberia, along with a buried paleontological treasure, which makes it a target for the hunters of scientific and as well as monetary resources.

Paleontological Treasure

The world’s permafrost covers an area twice the size of the United States and its carbon emissions are increasing as the climate warms. The thawing permafrost is a mixture of rock, ice, soil and organic remains of animals and plants. The melting has been associated with the release of methane into the atmosphere as global warming triggered the increased permafrost melting.

However, this thawing process has materialized into a blessing for the paleontological society. As Siberia’s permafrost thaws, scientists marvel at the mammoth and other prehistoric treasures beneath.

Melting Siberian Permafrost Uncovers Prehistoric Fossils and Methane

Image: Love Dalen (AFP)

Paleontologists are discovering more and more ancient bones, while more are expected to be unearthed in near future. The pace of such discoveries is accelerating as the frozen ground that covers 95 percent of Yakutia thaws and attracts scientists from around the world to this remotest of regions.

While most woolly mammoths died out about 10,000 years ago and went completely extinct about 4,000 years ago, paleontologists are still discovering specimens, especially beneath Siberian permafrost. At least 80 percent of the world’s known mammoth remains are thought to be in Yakutia and half of its intact Ice Age remains.

Climate Change Impact on Melting Siberian Permafrost

Be that as it may, these revelations about the fascinating natural history comes at a colossal price. The world’s permafrost covers an area twice the size of the United States, and its greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating as the climate warms.

Permafrost is the layer of permanently frozen soil that stretches beneath 65 percent of the Russian landmass and nearly a quarter of the northern hemisphere. It can be hundreds of meters deep and is defined technically as soil frozen for two years or more.

The Taymyr Peninsula, the Yenisey-Khatanga Basin and Yakutia regions are the highest emitters of greenhouse gases with rising temperatures and permafrost thaw. The Yenisey-Khatanga Basin is known for its untapped potential as a massive source of oil and gas, and its proximity to the wildfires that ravaged Siberia this summer.

Melting Siberian Permafrost Uncovers Prehistoric Fossils and Methane

Image: Matthew Luxmoore/RFE/RL

The rapidly melting permafrost has huge environmental implications – it releases enormous amounts of pent-up methane gas into the atmosphere and causing the ice to thaw even more quickly.

Siberia has been experiencing warmer summers and shorter winters along with increasing numbers of wildfires. The region has recently suffered one of the most intense heatwaves and destructive wildfire season. Presently, this carbon-rich soil covers 24 percent of land in the northern hemisphere and holds more carbon deposits than has ever been released by humans.

According to a 2020 study, animals including herds of horses, bison and reindeer, can be used to slow the loss of permafrost soils by disrupting the insulating layer of snow on the top of the peat in the winter. When this snow cover is scattered and compressed, its insulating effect is intensely reduced, escalating the freezing of the permafrost.

Scientists from the Universität Hamburg speculated that about 80 percent of all permafrost soils around the world could be preserved until the end of the century using this technique.

Currently, the events in North Siberia are all, in one way or the other are linked to the forest fires, the hunt for natural fuels and the release of powerful greenhouse gas.

Huge Methane Emissions

The limestone formations in the Taymyr Peninsula in northern Siberia are to be expected sites of “thermogenic methane” or natural gas methane sediments buried deep under the permafrost.

The methane could not originate from the typical microbes degrading the organic matter of the soil, as there is very little soil in these limestone formations.

When permafrost thaws, it releases more than 1,400 gigatons of carbon trapped inside is starting to escape in the form of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. Those emissions have the potential to rapidly accelerate global warming, causing the permafrost to thaw faster.

Calamitous Methane Release from Rock Formations in Arctic Permafrost

Image: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

Methane traps large amounts of heat in the atmosphere and plays a major role in climate change. The heatwave that sparked the forest fires in Siberia recently is part of a trend driven by human-caused global warming, as is the melting of Siberian permafrost. Oil and gas extraction in the region also releases alarming amounts of methane.

Arctic methane is generally linked to two sources – organic matter in permafrost and methyl clathrate (methane molecules frozen in ice crystals). However, recent studies have revealed a third source, which is freed from fractures and pockets in the permafrost area that has become unstable due to global warming.

Recent Discoveries amid Melting Siberian Permafrost

With the rising temperatures in the 21st century, paleontological discoveries have become more common. In 2007, Nenets reindeer herders stumbled upon a well-preserved woolly mammoth in the permafrost of the Yamal Peninsula. The 41,800 years old carcass was remarkably well-preserved.

Earlier this year, the carcass of a young woolly rhinoceros that died thousands of years ago was found almost perfectly preserved in the Siberia permafrost. Researchers said the carcass of a juvenile woolly rhino is between 20,000 and 50,000 years old and is the most complete young woolly rhino ever found. Most of the rhino’s hooves, teeth and internal organs were still intact and its horn was found broken off but lay nearby.

In 2019, a group of mammoth tusk hunters in eastern Siberia Last year, scientists found the well-preserved carcass of woolly rhino in eastern Siberia thought to have been frozen for tens of thousands of years.

Melting Siberian Permafrost Uncovers Prehistoric Fossils and Methane

Image: Reuters

The bone and tusk remains were found in Duvanny Yar, near Chersky in the Siberian Arctic, where international research stations play host to scientists to study the impact of the melting ice.

Melting permafrost in the Abyisky region of Yakutia in northeastern Russia has uncovered the rhino remains, with much of the animal’s soft tissue still visible, including part of the intestines and genitals and a small nasal horn.

Moreover, the melting permafrost has also disclosed plant life frozen in time from the Pleistocene epoch – a period spanning from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. The most recent discovery was made by a team of international scientists, who identified a pair of extinct Ice Age lions that are among the best-preserved specimens ever found.

The scientists believe that the cave lion cubs, named Boris and Sparta, briefly inhabited the steppe of what is now eastern Russia tens of thousands of years ago. Boris, the less intact cub is estimated to be around 43,448 years old and Sparta, a more intact cub 27,962 years old. Their focus is permafrost and the risk it represents as our planet warms.

A Grim Verdict

With rapidly melting Siberian permafrost amid global warming, several prehistoric animal remnants have been exposed over the last few years: an extinct cave lion cub in 2017, an 18,000-year-old prehistoric puppy in 2018, and a 42,000-year-old foal and 32,000-year-old wolf head in 2019.

However, while scientists are intrigued by the discovery and the research possibility it holds, the fact that global warming is triggering permafrost to melt quickly, leading to these discoveries, is quite alarming.

Permafrost contains large amounts of frozen carbon and other greenhouse gases. When it melts as the temperatures rise, this carbon runs through rivers and streams, ultimately escaping to the atmosphere. This entire process only exacerbates the global warming that led the permafrost to melt in the first place!

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