If you’re the type to speculate on real estate and humanity not getting its shit together to address climate change, may I interest you in a little corner of the world called Siberia.
Sure, Siberia is shorthand for “cold as balls” today. But unchecked climate change could make it an oasis capable of sustaining a up to nine times more people in some locations, according to new research. You’ll just have be OK with raging wildfires, ravenous polar bears, marauding mosquitoes, and the risk of death by anthrax. Sure, it’s a fixer upper situation but it’s better than the parched hellscape the rest of the planet could be by century’s end.
The findings about the coming Siberian safe harbour were published last week in Environmental Research Letters. Researchers used climate models to project the January and July average temperatures and annual precipitation under two climate scenarios, one where humanity begins rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately, taking them to zero by century’s end, and another where they spiral ever higher to 2100. They then used that information to look at the state of permafrost and Siberia’s “ecological landscape potential”, a metric for how big a population the landscape can support.
The results show that under the extreme greenhouse gas scenario, January temperatures would rise an astonishing 9 degrees Celsius by the latter decades of the century. That would make Siberia’s climate much more palatable, though still extremely chilly given that part of the region can see wintertime temperatures dip as low as minus-56 degrees Celsius. Julys would be 5.7 degrees Celsius warmer on average, which is still nothing to sneeze at. That would result in the permafrost area receding dramatically, opening up more land for agriculture.
There have, historically, been no areas in Siberia with favourable ecological landscape potential. The best Siberia can muster is an area with “medium” favour-ability. Obviously, people still live in Siberia (39 million in fact) so they’ve made due with the limited resources available and supplemented them by importing food and other goods from elsewhere. But under the extreme warming scenario, a substantial chunk of Siberia would become favourable for human habitation, particularly south-central Siberia and the east coast. That could help increase population densities from 2.4 people per square mile all the way up to 22.1 people per square mile in those regions, making it a veritable metropolis in a hot world.
Now, all this does come with some caveats. First, while Siberia might (and that’s a big might for reason’s we’ll get to in a second) become more habitable, much of the rest the planet will become decidedly less so. Deadly heat waves will make part of the tropics death zones, sea level rise would swamp coastal cities, and food production will suffer if climate change continues unchecked. Letting the world go to hell so Siberia can thrive seems like as good of a strategy for humanity as banking on Mars colonies to save us.
Then there’s the fact that while the thawed landscape may present more opportunities for agriculture, cities, towns, and all that, the ability for Russia or, say a group of tropical countries or low-lying islands whose populations had to migrate, to build all that infrastructure is highly questionable. And even if we did somehow get Siberia ready for a massive human occupation, it would hardly be a shining utopia. The boreal forest is burning at an unprecedented rate, and Siberia and the rest of Arctic may be under a constant siege of smoke.
Those caveats aide, the study as a thought experiment is definitely interesting in terms of thinking of how humans may adapt to climate change. Even if we avert the worst global warming case scenario, some regions could still become uninhabitable and some parts of Siberia and perhaps other northern areas could be a little more livable climate-wise. People may very well move into these newly-accessible locations and planning for that beforehand seems like a wise decision. Ditto for stopping runaway climate change while we’re at it.