Speleothems Reveal 500,000-Year History of Siberian Permafrost

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Science  12 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6129, pp. 183-186
DOI: 10.1126/science.1228729

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Permafrost Thaw Predictions

Permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere which could have serious consequences if it were to be released by widespread thawing. Vaks et al. (p. 183, published online 21 February) present a 450,000 year-long record of speleothem growth at selected locations in Siberia, which traces changes in the extent of permafrost over that time period. The authors conclude that conditions only slightly warmer than those of today would cause widespread thawing of continuous permafrost as far north as 60°N.


Soils in permafrost regions contain twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, and permafrost has an important influence on the natural and built environment at high northern latitudes. The response of permafrost to warming climate is uncertain and occurs on time scales longer than those assessed by direct observation. We dated periods of speleothem growth in a north-south transect of caves in Siberia to reconstruct the history of permafrost in past climate states. Speleothem growth is restricted to full interglacial conditions in all studied caves. In the northernmost cave (at 60°N), no growth has occurred since Marine Isotopic Stage (MIS) 11. Growth at that time indicates that global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw extensive regions of permafrost.

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