Arctic Circle’s record temperatures heighten global warming concerns

An unprecedented heatwave in northern Russia has produced the highest temperature ever recorded inside the Arctic Circle, heightening fears that global warming may be accelerating faster than scientists had thought.

Evdokiya Gulyaeva and fellow residents of Verkhoyansk, north-east of Siberia in the Yakutia region, have this week been sunbathing in a town that at other times of the year shares the record as the world’s coldest inhabited place. But as temperatures touched 38C, a makeshift riviera has sprung up along the nearby Yana river.

“We’re wearing bathing suits . . . it’s better than Sochi,” said Ms Gulyaeva, referring to the resort on Russia’s southern Black Sea coast.

Verkhoyansk’s scorching summer has thrilled locals emerging from coronavirus lockdown but alarmed scientists, who say the wild temperature anomalies underline the threat from global warming.

“It is a vivid message from the planet that climate change is well under way,” said Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London. “It is worrying, very worrying.”

Siberia experiences record temperatures. Verkhoyansk, recently hit 38C

The planet has warmed by about 1.1C on average during the past century, but that warming is not evenly distributed. The Arctic amplification phenomenon ensures that the warming has been much more pronounced in the polar regions, due to retreating snow and ice.

Temperatures in Siberia have been significantly warmer than usual since the beginning of the year, and a weather pattern has trapped a heatwave over Verkhoyansk for the past two weeks. June temperatures in the town normally average about 13C but this week the highs have been above 30C every day, with the 38C record set on June 20.

“During almost all of 2020, this region in Siberia has been warmer than average,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. “In May, these heatwaves were 10C above average for this region.”

A number of temperature record have already been set this year — including the warmest May on record — and 2020 is on track to be among the warmest ever.

While global emissions have dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, the earth continues to warm because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many decades.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, as the reduction in snow and ice exposes bare earth that absorbs more of the sun’s heat, contributing to a vicious cycle of warming.

Warming temperatures are threatening to drastically change the way of life in mineral-rich Siberia and Yakutia. Melting permafrost is destroying roads and weakening the foundations of longstanding industrial sites, contributing to disasters such as last month’s enormous diesel fuel spill in Norilsk.

Wildfires have also broken out across the region, prompting Russia’s emergency services minister to warn last month that they had spread as much as 10 times as far as a year earlier. “Since last year, we now have wildfires because of this. That never happened before,” Ms Gulyaeva said. 

Ebbing glaciers have also revealed the preserved remains of extinct woolly mammoths, which Ms Gulyaeva said locals in Verkhoyansk keep in their basements.

Prof Rapley said the temperature record inside the Arctic Circle was “another flashing light on the dashboard” as the planet warmed and the heating of the polar region changed atmospheric circulation patterns.

“The climate science community has predicted for 30 or 40 years that you would see this first, most dramatically, in the Arctic where these warnings are amplified,” he said.