Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from a new book, “The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon, Modern Science, and a Race to Save the World,” published locally by Braided River (an imprint of Mountaineers Books) and written by Eric Scigliano with Dr. Robert Max Holmes, Dr. Susan Natali, and Dr. John Schade. Photography by Chris Linder. Available at https://www.braidedriver.org/the-big-thaw for $35. Mountaineers Books just announced this “friends and families” discount for orders at mountaineersbooks.com. The publisher offers a 40% off code that expires Dec. 13, 2020. Christmas shoppers will need to order by Dec. 13 to be sure that orders arrive in West and Midwest states by Christmas. Add at least a week for shipping to the East Coast. Enter this code at checkout: JUSTFORYOU
The book explores the beauty, grandeur, and planetary peril presented by the vast northern belt of frozen soil, thinly cloaked in tundra and taiga forest, that composes more than fifth of the Earth’s land surface. This permafrost, as it’s called, holds about three times as much carbon as all the world’s forests. As it warms it’s beginning to thaw, releasing methane and carbon dioxide that threaten ecosystems and human societies worldwide. The book is also a tale of the great adventure that is science, as personified by young researchers racing to unravel this complex Arctic transformation and its implications. In their dedication and determination lies a kernel of hope.
Anya Suslova had just turned 14 when the strangers arrived. They were the first foreigners and the first scientists she had ever seen. Outsiders rarely came to Zhigansk, a northern outpost on Siberia’s Lena River that was downgraded from “town” to “rural locality” in 1805 and never regained its former status. They couldn’t reach it by land in the summer, when the ground turned to marshy, tire-sucking muskeg, or by boat in winter, when temperatures fell as low as -59° Celsius (-75° Fahrenheit) and the Lena froze as hard as the unthawing soil—the permafrost—that lay just a few feet below the stunted taiga forest.
In the warm months, Anya’s father skippered a government navigation-aid vessel, keeping the channels clear on the Arctic’s second-largest river. Anya rode along with him when she could. That summer, in 2003, a team of Russian and American scientists on a research expedition spanning the Alaskan, Canadian, and Siberian Arctic chartered the boat to take them to various sites on the Lena and its tributaries. There they gathered water samples, chemical evidence of the changes that the vast, little-studied Russian Arctic was undergoing in an age of global climate upheaval. One of the Americans was a tall, rangy fellow named Max Holmes, a specialist in river chemistry from a research laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Max noticed how Anya shadowed him and his colleagues, observing their curious research rituals. He began waving her over to help, and she held the bottles while he filled them. “After a week she’d learned all the procedures,” Max recalls with a laugh. “If I skipped a step, she would correct me!”
After two weeks, the researchers had to leave; they would not be able to return to the Lena—a costly, time-consuming trek from Moscow, let alone from Massachusetts—until the next year. But Max had a heap of unused sample bottles and a bright idea as to how they could still be useful. “Listen,” he said to Anya via a translator. “It’s really expensive for us to come here, and it would be really helpful if you could continue gathering samples while we’re gone.”
This was no big deal; Max didn’t expect anything to come of it. But when he and his colleagues returned to Zhigansk the next summer, they were amazed to discover that Anya had continued taking samples along the Lena every two weeks and storing them in a freezer usually dedicated to holding fish and moose meat.
Anya’s diligence bore results far beyond the data sets she contributed to. Helping the sojourning scientists set her on the path to her own scientific career. “Max never pushed me to become a scientist,” she recounts. “But he gave me two gifts. One was a digital camera. He thought that I might become a great photographer, but I just took selfies and pictures of my girlfriends. The second gift was more important—a subscription to National Geographic, in English. It opened my world and got me to learn English. I would learn the vocabulary to translate the articles.”
The subscription included a map of the world. “I put it on my wall,” says Anya, “and dreamed of going places.” Sure enough, she did: to university in Yakutsk, to South Korea as an exchange student, and finally to TERI University in India, where she received her master’s degree in climate science and policy. Today she is Max’s research assistant at the Woods Hole Research Center, one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to investigating climate change. Her father still collects samples along the Lena River.
The ripples from their chance encounter have reached farther yet, across Siberia, Alaska, and the frontiers of earth, aquatic, and climate science and undergraduate science education. “Working with Anya and the other students got me excited about making connections in Russia,” Max recalls. Siberia is vast, understudied, and difficult to get to, let alone work in. “Most Western scientists didn’t even try to work in the Russian Arctic, because it seemed like just too daunting a task.”
Beyond that, the enthusiasm that Anya and her friends brought to gathering samples got Max to thinking about the place of young people in science. They, after all, were the ones who would inherit the world that human activity and inaction were now shaping. Might there be a role for them in the scientific quest to understand that world and the consequences of choices being made today? Original research, as opposed to recapitulating solutions to familiar problems, was usually reserved for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, who were already set on their career paths. Younger students, however, had more freedom to experiment and take chances. Fourteen years old might be a bit young to conduct original research, but why shouldn’t talented, motivated undergraduates undertake it?
And thus was planted one of the seeds that would grow into the Polaris Project, an innovative research and educational venture dedicated to twin ambitious goals: to determine what will happen to the vast trove of carbon frozen in Arctic soils as the planet warms (and how that will in turn affect the climate), and to recruit, inspire, and train the next generation of Arctic scientists.
Four years later, in 2008, Max, fellow stream scientist John Schade, and six other colleagues would accompany seven undergraduate students to an even more northerly Siberian research station. There, at the site of an audacious experiment in paleo-ecological restoration called Pleistocene Park, this first Polaris expedition would launch a very different experiment that continues to this day.
Since then Max and John, joined in recent years by ecosystem scientist Sue Natali, British biogeochemist Paul Mann, and other colleagues, have led nearly 100 more rookie researchers to the frontiers of climate change and climate science, first in Siberia and then on an even more remote patch of tundra on Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. With them from the start has been photographer and videographer Chris Linder, who had already traveled some of the world’s wildest rivers with Max, capturing their visual and human sides. The Polaris team understands the importance of communicating its findings beyond the specialists who read scholarly journals. They know that resonant images bring home the realities of vulnerable ecosystems and threatened communities in a way that data never can.
A Warming World Crowned by Permafrost
By 2003, the Arctic world that Anya Suslova inhabited and Max Holmes studied had become the focus of urgent scientific interest and environmental concern. What was by then abundantly clear to oceanographers and climate scientists had begun to seep into popular media and public awareness: Big changes were underway in the Arctic. Sea ice on the Arctic Ocean was shrinking dramatically, as were the mighty glaciers covering Greenland, and while oceanic oscillations might play some role, only a warming climate could explain the degree of change.
The lands ringing the Arctic Ocean were also changing, but to much less fanfare. Stretching across much of Russia, Canada, and Alaska and smaller areas of several other countries is a vast swath of permafrost, ground that remains perennially frozen beneath a thin surface layer that thaws and refreezes each year. At its northernmost point, on Greenland’s north shore, this permafrost belt reaches nearly 84° of latitude, just 420 miles from the North Pole. The permafrost underlying the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau lies closer to the equator than to the North Pole, at about the same latitude as Cairo and Houston.
This boreal permafrost belt covers about a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s land surface. Some is Arctic desert where nothing grows, but the share of it that is vegetated—treeless tundra and the stunted forest called taiga—covers 12.4 percentof Earth’s land surface. Tropical rainforests cover only about 7 percent.
Tundra lacks the lush extravagance of Borneo or Amazonia, but it is a land of haunting beauty and dizzying changeability. For two months or so in the Arctic summer, snowy wastes give way to a frenzy of growth, as low-lying plants scramble to catch the round-the-clock sunlight and put out flowers and fruit, in order to attract pollen-peddling insects and seed-spreading bears and other foragers. Some 1,700 plant species grow on the tundra (if you count the lichens, which are actually communities of algae and fungi rather than plants). Four hundred are flowering plants, and because they grow so small and low, they form a carpet of colors and textures as dense as the finest Persian weaving. In some places their fruits—crowberries, cloudberries, cranberries, and blueberries, each type sweet, tart, and juicy in its own way—grow so thick that you can rake the groundcover as a grizzly does and chomp them by the handful.
From the air, the tundra looks like a uniform plush carpet, but step out on it and it proves much less regular and more maddening. Sedges form high tussocks that beckon with the promise of solid steps above the doubtful damp tangle below. Step on them, however, and they bend and throw you, and if you’re lucky, your ankle won’t twist. Kelly Turner, a 2018 Polaris student researcher, calls it “a vegetative trampoline.” Visitors to Alaska’s northern rim marvel when Iñupiat hunters say they prefer the cold sunless winters to the warm bright summers. But in summer they find themselves bogged down; in winter they speed over the frozen, snow-covered ground on snowmobiles and ATVs, just as they formerly did on dogsleds.
Viewed from our comfortable warmer niches, this frozen realm may seem as remote and timeless as the surface of the moon. But it is changing, with implications that will affect everyone everywhere on Earth. Permafrost soils are rich in carbon—the legacy of the grasslands, peatlands, and forests of past epochs—protected by freezing from microbial breakdown. The deep deposits of yedoma (the fine-grained soils, also known as loess, deposited across Siberia by winds and waters from the south) contain 10 to 30 times as much carbon as ordinary deep mineral soils. In some places, this carbon-rich soil has piled up more than 100 feet deep.
That’s an enormous carbon sink, perhaps the biggest on the planet—still intact, though precariously so. The entire permafrost belt holds some 1.5 trillion tons of carbon (a middling estimate among calculations that range from 1.2 to 1.85 trillion tons). That’s more than the 1.2 trillion tons of carbon in all the accessible fossil fuels—coal, gas, and oil—that remain (for now) sequestered underground. It’s three times as much as all the carbon in all the vegetation on Earth. It’s also nearly twice as much as the 850 billion tons in the atmosphere today.
The general consensus among climate scientists is that another 230 billion tons of carbon entering the atmosphere would push average global temperature above preindustrial levels by 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit), the best-guess threshold before severe, perhaps irremediable disruptions, from widespread desertification to polar melting and catastrophic sea-level rise, ensue. The permafrost ringing the northern hemisphere contains about six times this “emission budget,” the amount we can afford to add to the atmosphere if we don’t want to upend the planetary systems on which life as we know and love it depends.