Climate change has introduced the specter of rising seas, flooded coastal communities, and people uprooted from their homes on an unprecedented scale. In 2016, 23.5 million people were displaced by climate- and weather-related disasters, including 12.9 million hit by storms, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
If climate change produces an exodus of refugees seeking safer places to live, where will they go? Some researchers are considering real estate in a thinly populated area of the world where climate change might make living conditions improve: Siberia.
Russia’s vast Siberian region stretches from the Ural Mountains eastward to the Pacific Ocean. On average, only three people occupy each of the more than 13 million square kilometers of this expanse. The territory has extensive oil and mineral deposits, some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, abundant forests and fisheries, and crop and livestock production.
However, Siberia’s Yakutia region also hosts the Northern Hemisphere’s “pole of cold”: the place with the lowest air temperature ever recorded in the hemisphere. Even in Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk, the mercury can drop to −50°C.
Wild New Frontier
But atmospheric warming from greenhouse gases could make conditions more hospitable. Researchers from the V. N. Sukachev Institute of Forest of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been examining the climatic and agricultural potential for Siberia to become a home to more people.
Elena Parfenova and her colleagues outlined their projections in a poster they presented at a joint conference of the Japan Geoscience Union and the American Geophysical Union in Chiba, Japan, in May. The researchers reported that by the 2080s, Siberia will have a milder climate, less permafrost coverage, and possibly vastly increased crop production. That would make the region much more appealing for settlers, they added.
Because the district of the Russian Federation formally named “Siberia” occupies only a fraction of the land on which the researchers focused their study, Parfenova and her colleagues use the term “Asian Russia” in their poster to refer to the entire Urals to Pacific coast region.
The team evaluated Asian Russia now and how it might look in the 2080s in several categories: temperature, precipitation, permafrost, and a “climate severity” parameter that factors in temperatures below 0°C and the presence or absence of permafrost. They also calculated the region’s ecological landscape potential (ELP), a gauge of a landscape’s ability to provide for the needs of human settlers. The ELP ranking for various Russian landscapes, originally developed by Russian environmental scientist A. G. Isachenko, is a seven-step chart going from 1 (most hospitable) to 7 (most inhospitable) and includes mean population densities. The ranking is derived from calculations involving temperature, precipitation, and evaporation. For instance, the forested landscape known as middle taiga has an ELP ranking of 3, or “medium,” and a mean population density of 6.6 people per square kilometer.
To project what Siberia’s 2080s climate might be like, the researchers analyzed data from 1000 Siberian weather stations from the 1960–1990 period and established baselines of temperatures for January and July and of annual precipitation. They then interpolated the weather station data across a grid with a pixel size of 0.25° of latitude by 0.25° of longitude.
To characterize different warming scenarios for the 2080s, the researchers applied to the baseline temperatures and annual precipitation at each pixel the outcomes of 20 general circulation models developed in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The team also superimposed maps showing current climate severity, permafrost extent, and crop potential onto population maps. The good correlations between these environmental factors and present-day population densities suggested that it’s possible to project population increases along with climate change, Parfenova’s collaborator Nadezhda Tchebakova, also of the Sukachev Institute, told Eos.
The researchers found that by the 2080s, Siberia could have a milder climate with less permafrost coverage. Depending on the projection scenario, temperatures could rise by as much as 9.1°C in midwinter and as much as 5.7°C in midsummer; annual precipitation may increase by 60 millimeters to 140 millimeters.
They also found that the ELP values for most of the region could jump by one to two categories, meaning the potential for human settlement could also jump. The results of the study, which will be submitted to a special issue of Environmental Research Letters later this year, build on previous work by Parfenova, Tchebakova, and colleagues. In a 2011 study published in the same journal, they predicted that by the end of the 21st century, 50%–80% of central Siberia might have a climate suitable for agriculture, with traditional Siberian crops shifting northward by as much as 70 kilometers per decade. Soil conditions would put limits on farming, but the warmer climate might allow the introduction of crops such as rice, beans, and European grapes.
“The population density may increase by threefold under one scenario,” Parfenova told Eos. “But this is just the potential. It doesn’t mean people will necessarily go there. There are no railways, and infrastructure is poor. I have some doubts because nobody will know when the permafrost will melt. Maybe this territory will transform into a big bog. But it will be better than now because the severe winter cold will be milder.”
Permafrost Wild Card
The “big bog” scenario, thawing of the permafrost, represents a potential wild card in this makeover of Siberia. Scientists believe that permafrost is holding some 1400 gigatons of carbon globally, more than twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere.
As the permafrost melts, it could release greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere, enhancing the effects of warming. However, as forests push northward into tundra areas, they will act as a carbon sink, potentially slowing the effect, the researchers said.
Permafrost thawing can lead to land subsiding, which can undermine the foundations for and ultimately destroy roads, bridges, and other infrastructure needed by settlers. “The potential threefold increase in population by the 2080s will depend also upon infrastructure development and other socioeconomic factors,” Pavel Groisman told Eos. He is a North Carolina State University research scholar at the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville and was a convener of the poster session of the joint conference at which the study was presented.
“The authors are careful to mention that the climate and environmental changes in Siberia will provide changes in ecological landscape potential,” added Groisman, who is also a project scientist at the Northern Eurasia Earth Science Partnership Initiative. “Future socioeconomic development of northern Asia will show if this ELP materializes into the population growth or not.”