Tag Archives: siberia

Heatwaves in Siberia are now releasing methane trapped in the rocks

A record 2020 heatwave triggered the release of fossil methane gas leaked from known rock formations in Siberia. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas itself, researchers fear this could be part of a climate feedback loop: where more heat triggers more greenhouse gas emissions and even more heat. 

The Siberian forest. Image credit: Flickr

Methane is the second most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2). It’s 25 times as potent as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere and over the last two decades, its concentration has more than doubled. Most of this has come from fossil fuels (especially coal), cattle, rice paddies, and waste dumps.  

Scientists have long been worried over the risk of a “methane bomb” — a rapid increase in the amount of methane released to the atmosphere — from thawing wetlands in Siberia’s permafrost. But now, a study by three German geologists is raising the alarm over increasing emissions from thawing rock formations as well. 

While the thawing wetlands release microbial methane from the decay of the soil and the organic matter, the thawing limestone releases hydrocarbons and gas hydrates from reservoirs below (and within) the permafrost. These emissions are “much more dangerous” than what was previously believed, according to the researchers.

“We observed an increase in methane concentration starting last summer. This remained over the winter, so there must have been a steady steady flow of methane from the ground,” Nikolaus Froitzheim, who led the research, told The Guardian. “At the moment, these anomalies are not of a very big magnitude, but it shows there is something going on.”

The researchers said they don’t know yet how dangerous these methane releases are, mainly because of a lack of information on how fast the gas is released.  

Climate-wise, things are already bad. But this could add even more fuel onto an already massive fire. That’s why the team calls on further research on the issue. If the planet’s temperature keeps growing, the release of additional methane could be the difference between catastrophe and apocalypse, they added. 

A satellite analysis

For the study, the researchers worked with satellite data to measure methane concentrations in the Taymyr Peninsula and its surroundings in northern Siberia, which was affected by the world’s most extreme heatwave of 2020. They focused on two “conspicuous elongates areas of limestone – stripes up to 375 miles long and several miles wide.  

There’s hardly any soil in the stripes, making the limestone crop out of the surface. As the rock formations warm up, they start to crack, releasing methane that was trapped inside. Concentrations of methane were elevated by about 5% during the heatwave. Additional tests showed the concentration remained as high in the spring of 2021 despite the return of low temperatures. 

Atmospheric methane concentrations in North Siberia during 2020–2021. Image credit: The researchers.

“It’s intriguing. It’s not good news if it’s right,” Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, who was not involved in the study, told the Washington Post. “Nobody wants to see more potentially nasty feedbacks and this is potentially one. If something in the Arctic is going to keep me up at night that’s still what it is.”

The scientists now plan to investigate their findings further and model calculations to find out how much and how fast natural gas may be released. Froitzhem said the estimated amounts of natural gas in the subsurface of North Siberia are huge. Releasing the methane accumulated there to the atmosphere could have severe consequences on the global climate, he added.

The study was published in the journal PNAS. 

Perfectly preserved Ice Age ‘cave bear’ remains found in New Siberian Islands

The remains of a perfectly preserved Ice Age cave bear were just discovered in the Russian Arctic, with its nose, teeth, and internal organs still intact. The finding was made by a group of reindeer herders on the Lyakhovsky Islands, which are part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago in the Arctic.

Credit North-Eastern Federal University

The bear’s remains were revealed by the melting permafrost. It is believed to have died 22,000 to 39,500 years ago. The species, Ursus spelaeus, lived in Eurasia during the last ice age and then went extinct 15,000 years ago. Previously, scientists only had been able to discover partial skeletons of cave bears, which makes the new findings groundbreaking.

Scientists of the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, the leading center for research into woolly mammoths and other prehistoric species, highlighted the importance of the discovery. They were initially alerted by local reindeer herders but haven’t been able to travel to the site yet, as it’s a long way from Yakutsk.

“Today this is the first and only find of its kind — a whole bear carcass with soft tissues. It is completely preserved, with all internal organs in place including even its nose. Previously, only skulls and bones were found. This find is of great importance for the whole world,” scientist Lena Grigorieva from the North-Eastern Federal University said in a statement.

Cave bears roamed Europe and Asia when the continents were covered in glaciers. They shared the landscape with other impressive creatures such as mammoths, saber toothed cats and giant ground sloths. They could weigh up to 2,200 pounds (one tonne), which is 500 pounds (225 kg) heavier than the largest bears currently alive.

Greigorieva and her colleagues said the bear’s age was only an estimate until carbon dating could add precision. They will carry out studies to know more about the carcass, including a genetic analysis. The reindeer herders have transferred the right to research to the scientists of NEFU, according to Greigorieva.

As climate change kicks in across the world, the Siberian permafrost, which remains frozen all year, is beginning to melt. As this happens, more and more ice-age creatures are unearthed after lying frozen for tens of thousands of years. The Lyakhovsky Islands, where the bear was found, is also packed with mammoths from the last ice age.

Last year, a group of scientists discovered a 40,000-year-old severed wolf’s head, complete with fur, teeth, brain, and facial tissue on the banks of a river in Yakutia. Other ancient creatures found in the Yakutia ice include two extinct cave-lion cubs and a 42,000-year-old foal. More are expected to be found as the temperature rises.

Siberian heatwave would have been almost impossible without climate change

In the first six months of the year, Siberia experienced a period of unusually high temperatures, including a record-breaking 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) in the town of Verkhoyansk.

This would have been essentially impossible without the influence of human-caused climate change, according to a new study.

Forest fires in Siberia. Credit Flickr

The Russian region’s temperatures were more than five degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) above average between January and June of this year. A global team of researchers from universities and meteorological services found that the likelihood of this happening without human-induced climate change is 1 in 80,000. In other words, the Siberian heatwave is a smoking gun (almost literally) for man-made climate change.

Climate change increased the chances of the prolonged heat in Siberia by a factor of at least 600. This made the heat wave “almost impossible” if the world hadn’t been warmed by greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers concluded.

They described the finding as “unequivocal evidence of the impact of climate change.”

Climate and weather

This is among the strongest results of any attribution study, which seek to better understand the role that human-induced climate change plays in weather events.

The problem is that climate deals with larger, long-term trends, and while these trends clearly indicate that the planet is heating as a result of human activity, attributing individual events to climate change is very challenging.

In this case, scientists used computer simulations to compare the climate as it is today with the climate as it would have been without human influence.

“These results show that we are starting to experience extreme events which would have almost no chance of happening without human footprint on the climate system. We have little time left to stabilize global warming at levels at which climate change would remain within the bounds of the Paris Agreement,” said in a press release Sonia Seneviratne, a co-author.

The scientists noted that even in the current climate the prolonged heat was still very unlikely. Such extreme conditions can be expected to occur less than once every 130 years, according to the study. But without rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, they risk becoming frequent by the end of the century.

The heat registered in Siberia also has triggered widespread fires, with 1.15 million hectares burning in late June. This has been associated with the release of about 56 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is more than the annual emissions of some industrialized European countries such as Switzerland and Norway.

At the same time, it has accelerated the melting of permafrost, with an oil tank built on the frozen soil collapsing in May, leading to one of the worst oil spills ever recorded in the region. Greenhouse gases released by the fires and melting permafrost, as well as decreases in the planet’s reflectivity from loss of snow and ice, will further heat the planet.

“This study shows that not only was the magnitude of the temperature extremely rare but also the weather patterns that caused it. We are continuing to study how the wildfires that have burned over thousands of hectares might also affect the climate as the flames pump smoke and ash into the atmosphere,” said in a press release co-author Olga Zolina.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Arctic temperatures are estimated to have risen two degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) since 1850 compared with one degree Celsius (33.8 Fahrenheit) globally. The impact this will have on the world is less certain. This year’s Siberian heatwaves shows just how extreme conditions can become unless drastic action is taken quickly.

The study was published in World Weather Attribution.

For Russia, it’s not all about coronavirus, as large parts of Siberia are on fire

For Russia, the main concern now isn’t just being one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, although 166,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths have been confirmed so far.

A satellite photo from NASA shows the extent of the fires. Credit NASA

Massive areas of Siberia are now on fire, as spring has brought high temperatures across the country. While this happens every year, the number of fires is much larger than usual, and the government is focused on dealing with the coronavirus.

A total of 3,339 fires were recorded at the end of April, much higher than the 1,960 registered on the same time last year. They now cover 477,000 hectares, while last year they only reached 382,000, according to Russia’s Federal Forest Agency.

Nine Siberian regions have been affected by these wildfires, with clouds of smoke sweeping across the Siberian landscape. The fires in the Amur region have consumed one and half times more territory than last year, while in Transbaikal the blaze is three times larger.

Nevertheless, the worst-hit region so far is Krasnoyarsk — the third largest city in Siberia — where the blaze has engulfed 10 times more territory than April last year, according to Russian Emergencies Minister Evgeny Zinichev.

“A less snowy winter, an abnormal winter and insufficient soil moisture are factors that create the conditions for the transition of landscape fires to settlements,” Zinichev told President Vladimir Putin, according to Siberian Times.

The primary causes of the fires are unauthorized and uncontrolled agriculture fires. But extreme heat is also expanding the flames. In recent days, temperatures have reached spikes of as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), way above what’s normal for this time of year.

The coronavirus could also be making matters even worse. Russia’s lockdown started with a focus on Moscow in late March and has since spread to the rest of the country. It’s also been extended until May 11. Many city residents left for the countryside to have more space and have been ignoring fire safety rules, according to the Siberian Times. Sergei Anoprienko, head of the federal forest agency, directly blamed the coronavirus lockdown for the rise in fires.

“People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules. In some regions, the temperature is already around 30ºC, and people just can’t keep themselves in their apartments,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told regional and emergency officials that they must be ready for emergencies on wildfires. “All the efforts are now primarily concentrated on countering the spread of the coronavirus. However, this must not divert our attention from other potential threats to people’s lives and safety,” he said.

What’s happening in Siberia could be a preview of what’s to come in other parts of the world. The Amazon’s dry season is about to get started and could be worse than last year’s dangerous fire season. In western North America, wildfire season is also just around the corner.

Brown bear.

Brown bear saliva kills a bacteria that current antibiotics are unable to treat

An international research team reports that the saliva of a Siberian brown bear (Ursus arctos collaris) subspecies can kill Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, a strain that is rapidly becoming resistant to all current antibiotics.

Brown bear.

Image credits Oksanna Briere.

One subspecies of the Siberian brown bear can kill S.aureus with its bare saliva, a new paper reports. The animal’s range includes Mongolia, Siberia, and parts of northern China. While generally vegetarian, the bears also dine on caribou, elk, and fish. This wide menu has a profound impact on the subspecies’ microbiome, the team writes — including its surprising disinfectant ability.

‘Drool over this, please’

The discovery comes as part of a larger project aiming to study the microbiome of several wild animals. The project’s goal is to find naturally-occurring chemicals which can kill bacteria that also infect humans, especially the strains that are becoming or have become resistant to antibiotic treatments.

The team captured several specimens of the bear subspecies in the taiga — the forested parts of Siberia — and harvested saliva swabs for analysis. Using “state of the art screening techniques,” the team was able to identify the chemical make-up and microbiota of the samples.

One bacteria swimming its merry way in that saliva is Bacillus pumilus, a strain that secretes an antibiotic compound known as amicoumacin A. The team believes the bears obtain this bacterium when they munch on certain types of vegetation.

After finding B.pumilus in the saliva samples, the team looked to see how it interacts with other antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as S.aureus — which is associated with skin infections in humans. That’s how they discovered that the strain can effectively deal with the staphylococcus.

The findings could go a long way in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, which are struggling to remove the deadly bacteria. A naturally-occurring chemical that can help us fight staph would be quite valuable.

The team plans to continue the project in hopes of finding even more new compounds that can help us keep bacteria at bay.

The paper “Ultrahigh-throughput functional profiling of microbiota communities” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Perfectly preserved 40,000-year-old foal belonging to now-extinct horse found in Siberian Permafrost

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

While they were on an expedition in the Yakutia region of Siberia, Japanese scientists came across a one-of-a-kind discovery: the remains of a foul belonging to a now-extinct species of horse. The 40,000-year-old horse was found buried beneath 30 meters of permafrost, which preserved it so well that scientists found it with its tail, mane, and hooves still attached.

According to Semyon Grigoryev, the head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the foul was just three months old when it died during the late Palaeolithic period.

Left: nose of the horse, Right: hooves of the horse. Credit: Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University.

Left: nose of the horse, Right: hooves of the horse. Credit: Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

The 38-inch baby horse still had all of its internal organs when Japanese researchers from North-Eastern Federal and Kindai Universities found it. The foul even retained its dark brown coat and, by one account, its legs had ‘zebra-like’ stripes — everything was extraordinarily preserved despite tens of thousands of years have passed since the baby horse’s death.

The horse was an Equus lenesis, also known as the Lena horse, which is now extinct.

“This is the first find in the world of a pre-historic horse of such a young age and with such an amazing level of preservation,” Grigoryev told The Siberian Times. 

Besides the novelty of finding such a well preserved ancient specimen, the discovery may lead to other important scientific developments. Researchers also collected soil samples from where the horse was found, meaning they can now reconstruct what the environment looked like during the late Pleistocene.

An aerial view of Batagai. Credit: Siberian Times.

An aerial view of Batagai. Credit: Siberian Times.

The horse was found in Batagai depression, which is also called the “Mouth of Hell” — a tadpole-shaped, one-km-long crater initially created by the Soviets when they cleared the forest in the area. Scientists say the gash in the tundra is now being enlarged and shaped by climate change. Who knows what else they might find in the future as the permafrost clears away.

Although they don’t know exactly what happened to the young creature, it could be that it died in its sleep.

Experts that took part in the expedition came up with a version that the foal could have drowned after getting into some kind of a natural trap,” Grigory Savvinov, deputy head of the North-Eastern Federal University, told The Siberian Times. 

There are no obvious wounds on the animal so an autopsy will determine what the animal’s last day looked like and how it finally perished.

Two-thousand-year-old ‘Great Wall of Siberia’ discovered by archaeologists

The findings are comparable to Hadrian’s Wall, which separated Roman England from the ‘wild’ Scotland.

Views around Souzga village; the Great Wall of China and Hadrian Wall. Pictures: The Siberian Times.

The big wall club

Walls seem to be a hot topic these days, though their purpose hasn’t really changed much across the centuries. Their straightforward purpose is to keep people out. People built walls around their huts, around their churches, their towns, and even their countries. Back then, it wasn’t so much about keeping immigrants out, as it was about defending from invaders. The Romans built a massive wall in northern England. Hadrian’s Wall has inspired countless myths and legends, including the great Wall from Game of Thrones. But for the Romans, the wall was a very practical investment which served to protect the edge of their empire from Scottish pillaging raids and invasions.

Even Hadrian’s Wall pales in comparison to the Great Wall of China. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC in China, for defense and to serve as border control. Those bits and pieces were maintained, enhanced, and ultimately connected. The Great Wall reached its greatest form during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Well, the select club of epic walls might get another addition: the Siberia Wall in the Altai Mountains.

Ramparts and walls

Today, the wall system is barely visible, but it must have been truly humbling in its time. Professor Andrey Borodovsky, an archaeologist working in the Altai Mountains in eastern Russia, says that it measured eight meters high, and had a width of ten meters.

‘To the east of these walls is a fairly wide passage, which is limited at the mountainside by another series of walls, oriented west-east across the Katun valley,’ he said.

Siberian scientists study the Altai walls, concealed under thick layers of turf. Picture: Andrey Borodovsky.

Just on a single hillside, he found nine adjacent walls, connected in a rampart system. At the moment, it’s unclear who built the system, though Borodovsky believes that based on their structure, the walls were more a Trump-style border control than a Roman defense system.

‘These walls were clearly made to cut off crowds of people, and make them go through a narrow passage in the direction chosen by the creators of the (construction).’

Location of the Altai Walls. Picture: Andrey Borodovsky.

The existence of archaeological remnants in the area was known for quite a while. However, much of the wall system was destroyed by the construction of the Chuya highway in tsarist times. Later on, Stalin continued work on the highways using prison labor — and destroyed even more swaths of archaeological walls. The expansion of the modern-day village Souzga village also took its toll, leaving only stumps of the walls’ former glory. But even so, what’s left is impressive.

Seeing the unseen

The problem is that the entire system is covered by turf, to the point where it’s barely visible to the naked eye. Sattelite imagery also doesn’t help that much, so Borodovsky used geophysical techniques — especially a method called resistivity.

The subsurface location of the walls, as interpreted by the Russian archaeologist. Location of the Altai walls, and data from geophysical analysis. Picture: Andrey Borodovsky.

In Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) current is pumped into the ground through electrodes, and measured on other electrodes. Based on this measurement, characteristics of the underground can be assessed, and man-made material can be separated from natural soil and rocks (to some extent). He also used seismic methods, where an earthquake-like wave is created, and information can be derived based on its reflection captured at a sensor.

‘Geophysics has clearly confirmed that the Souzga walls were artificially created,’ he told The Siberian Times.

Still, the age of the walls is still open for discussion. Borodovsky says he doesn’t know the exact age of the walls yet, but he estimates it around the first millennium BC.

‘It is not very easy to determine the age of such constructions, when exactly were they created, but I believe it was around the first millennium BC – the beginning of new era. That is Iron Age or even Bronze Age, but more likely – Iron Age.’

‘I’m basing this on the fact that it was the time when such constructions are created all over the world, for example the famous Hadrian’s Wall also fits into this trend.’

The Altai Walls were even more impressive than Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, which still survives today. Image credits: Steven Fruitsmaak.

The problem is that what little has been found on the surface has been dated to medieval times. But Borodovsky believes the medieval people only built on top of the ancient walls and didn’t create them from scratch. He says that medieval people wouldn’t have had the interest or the money for such a massive project.

‘I still believe that in Middle Ages there was not a big enough community here which could afford to build such a formidable construction. Besides, there also was no need for such a construction because in Middle Ages there were a lot of small, scattered communities here.’

There’s also a matter of historical coherence which supports his assumption. Many important Eurasian defense lines date from the beginning of the first millennium BC up to a few hundred years in the Current Era. Borodovsky explains:

‘Such a fortification process was due to a number of factors. First, the appearance of significant human resources in this era, thanks to the potential of an integrated manufacturing economy. Secondly, the aggravation of military conflicts and a significant increase in their scale. Thirdly, the formation of large state and proto-state entities, which had economic, cultural and political boundaries and these boundaries … to separate their world from aliens.’

It also remains to be seen what culture created this magnificent defense line. Among the suspects are ancient people such as the Pazyryk culture, a Scythian Iron Age culture, who buried mummies in long barrows (or kurgans) and seemed to have a flourishing civilization from the 6th to 3rd centuries BC.

A huge methane blowout in Labytnangi, Tyumen region which occurred earlier in June. Credit: Siberian Times.

Thousands of methane-filled bubbles are waiting to explode in Siberia

Some 7,000 explosive methane bubbles have crept up in Siberia’s Yamal and Gydan peninsulas as a result of the region’s first thaw in more than 11,000 years. Some have caught fire leaving behind huge craters. Nobody has been injured yet, but given the sheer number of these bulging gas pockets, that may just be a matter of time, unfortunately.

A huge methane blowout in Labytnangi, Tyumen region which occurred earlier in June. Credit: Siberian Times.

A huge methane blowout in Labytnangi, Tyumen region which occurred earlier in June. Credit: Siberian Times.

One of the last tundra eruptions to cause major damage occurred last month near a reindeer encampment, on an Arctic riverbank. The explosion caused a deafening bang, ‘shooting fire into the sky’ that raged on for minutes. A 50-meter deep crater formed and immediately filled with water, the Siberian Times reports. Luckily, the reindeer quickly fled the site of the methane discharge in the Yamal Peninsula, which is known to locals as ‘the end of the world’. Not coincidentally, Yamal has the biggest concentration of natural gas fields on the planet.

“The reindeer fled to the south, but he had newborn calf (in his hands),” Mikhail Okotetto, a raindeer herder, told a local TV station. “So the reindeer and dogs, all ran away, and he was just left there standing with the newborn calf.”

Similar events are just waiting to happen, judging by the numerous patches of swelling grass like the one demonstrated by the daredevil below.

Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky, an expert in thermokarst lakes, says these formations have started popping up at an alarming rate around Arctic Russia starting in 2014. These are reportedly produced by methane creeping through the Siberian permafrost freed by rising temperatures as a result of global warming. It might only get worse as the methane, a gas more than 25 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere, is released in ever increasing quantities into the atmosphere. What’s more, according to a new study, global warming will defrost much more permafrost than we thought.

According to Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky, the deputy director of the Moscow-based Oil and Gas Research Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, there are a number of features that make the methane bubbles — also called thermokarst lakes — stand out. For instance, this includes a distinctive blue hue caused by algae which are attracted to the sulfur in the seeping greenhouse gas. Other common features include traces of gas in the winter ice cover, active erosion on the shores, and permafrost swelling at the water’s edge.

Like many other places around the globe, Siberia has been exceptionally hot in the last few years. In March, parts of Siberia and the Arctic were as warm as 12.1°C (22°F) above the 1951–1980 average.

It’s not just Siberia that should worry. Similar permafrost deposits, that still keep methane locked in Canada or Alaska, could thaw and produce similar features there as well.

The only solution to this mounting problem that threatens wildlife, people’s livelihoods, and adds to global warming is to urgently reduce fossil fuel use. It’s estimated 800,000 square miles of permafrost could be saved if the Paris Agreement goals are met, namely to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C compared to Industrial Age levels. The Paris Agreement, which President Donald Trump wants to withdraw the USA from, is a pact signed by more than 190 countries.

The Siberian unicorn is related to the rhino, was the size of a woolly mammoth, had fur and walked like a horse. Its horn was very long and blade-like. You won't want to hug this unicorn. Credit: Heinrich Harder, Wikimedia Commons

Unicorns might have been real, but they look nothing like in fairy tales

The unicorn — a mythological animal that resembled a horse with a single horn on its forehead — may have been real. Russian paleontologists dated the fossil remains of a Elasmotherium sibiricum, a giant beast the size of a mammoth with a saber like horn, and found these were 35,000 years old. That places the closest resembling unicorn animal in the same place and time with humans migrating and settling Asia.

The Siberian unicorn is related to the rhino, was the size of a woolly mammoth, had fur and walked like a horse. Its horn was very long and blade-like. You won't want to hug this unicorn. Credit: Heinrich Harder, Wikimedia Commons

The Siberian unicorn is related to the rhino, was the size of a woolly mammoth, had fur and walked like a horse. Its horn was very long and blade-like. You wouldn’t want to hug this unicorn. Credit: Heinrich Harder, Wikimedia Commons

The unicorn appeared in early Mesopotamian artworks, and it also was referred to in the ancient myths of India and China. If unicorn fables were ever inspired by a living creature, scholars posited that it must have been the rhinoceros.  E. sibiricum, also known as the Siberian unicorn, resembles much closer any ancient accounts of the unicorn.

Elasmotherium is an extinct genus of giant rhinoceros endemic to Eurasia during the Late Pliocene through the Pleistocene. The name literally means ‘Thin Plate Beast’. These animals were quite common in Eurasia during the last couple of million years, documented from around 2.6 million years ago to at least as late as 50,000 years ago.

The most famous of the genus, E. sibiricum, could grow up to at least 15 ft in length and a shoulder height of over 6 ft 7 in. It had a singular enormous horn on its forehead which could grow to be several feet long. That’s much bigger than that of the modern rhinoceros. It likely used it to battle male competition and predators, attract mates, but also to dig up roots, make water holes or clear snow to reach its favorite food — grass.

Some other distinct and peculiar features include high-crowned molars that never stopped growing and very long legs, at least compared to today’s rhinos. Fossils suggest that the Siberian unicorn was adapted for galloping, possessing a horse-like gait. Another notable fact is that the front feet were bigger than the hind feet. In the front, the animal had four digits and only three at the rear.

Reconstructed Siberian unicorn skull on display at the Natural History Museum in London. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Reconstructed Siberian unicorn skull on display at the Natural History Museum in London. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Siberian unicorn was thought to have disappeared some 350,000 years ago, but now researchers from Tomsk State University in Siberia, Russia proved that at least some populations survived for far longer. Using the radiocarbon Accelerator Mass Spectrometry method, the researchers dated  a Siberian unicorn  skull found in the Pavlodar Priirtysh region of northeast Kazakhstan and found it to be 29,000 years old. The findings were reported in the American Journal of Applied Science.

“Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age. The dimensions of this rhino are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportions are typical,” Andrey Shpanski, a paleontologist at Tomsk State University.

“Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a refúgium, where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range. There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas,” said Shpanski, trying to explain how this specimen was alive when populations around the world had died off far earlier.

Around this time humans were well spread throughout the Asian steps, and likely encountered the Siberian unicorn. It is then possible that the unicorn myth may have started tens of thousands of years ago, inspired by the Siberian unicorn. Here’s what famous Arabic medieval traveller Ibn Fadlan wrote about how locals describe a mythical unicorn, with startling similarities to E. sibiricum:

“Near this river (the Volga) is a vast wilderness wherein they say is an animal that is less than a camel and more like a bull in size. Its head is like the head of a camel, and its tail is like the tail of a bull, while its body is like the body of a mule, and its hooves are like the cloven hooves of a bull. In the center of its head, it has a thick round horn, which as it rises from the head of the animal gets to be thinner until it becomes like the point of a lance. The length of some of these horns is from three to five cubits (roughly 4.5-7.5 feet), and there are those that may attain to a greater or lesser length. The animal grazes on the leaves of trees, which are quite green. When it sees a horseman, it makes straight for him, and if he happens to have under him a fast horse, he is rendered safe from it with some effort. If it overtakes him, it removes him from the back of his horse with its horn, hurls him into the air, and then catches him with its horn. It continues in this manner until it kills him. It does not bother the horse in any form or manner. They seek out this animal in the forests in order to kill it. They do that by climbing the tall trees among which it is found, and with this object in mind, they assemble a number of archers with poisoned arrows. When it stands in their midst, they shoot at it until it is severely wounded and killed by them.”

It would truly be amazing if  E. sibiricum was the root of the unicorn myth. Such a hypothesis, though impossible to prove, is not that far fetched.


Ancient giant virus will be revived by scientists

French scientists announced the discovery of Mollivirus sibericum in the US National Academy of Sciences journal this week. The “Siberian soft virus” is the fourth pre-historic virus found since 2003, and the second one claimed by the team. They plan on reanimating the 30,000 year old giant virus unearthed from the frozen soil of Siberia for study, after verifying that it cannot cause human or animal disease.

A handout photo provided by the IGS-CNRS and Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine shows cells of the Mollivirussibericum. Image via livemint

But they warn that rising temperatures may awaken other dangerous pathogens in nature, not laboratory conditions. Climate change is warming the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at more than twice the global average, which means that permafrost is neither as permanent or frosty any more.

“A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the lead researchers, told AFP.

To qualify as a “giant”, a virus has to be longer than half a micron, a thousandth of a millimetre (0.00002 of an inch). To put it into perspective, one of the largest modern viruses, Megavirus chilensis (also known as the megavirus), boasts a length of 0.4 microns. Mollivirus sibericum clocks in at a whopping 0.6 microns, a full 50 percent larger diameter.

The regions where these giant microbes have been found are highly coveted for their mineral resources, oil especially, and as the ices melt they become increasingly more accessible for industrial exploitation.


“If we are not careful, and we industrialise these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as small pox that we thought were eradicated,” he added.

The team will attempt to revive the newly discovered virus by placing it with single-cell amoeba, which will serve as its host, in safe laboratory conditions. Claverie, who runs a lab at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a team discovered another giant virus, which they called Pithovirus sibericum, at the same location in 2013, then managed to revive it in a petri dish.

It’s not the first time scientists have revived a virus. In 2004, US scientists resurrected the notorious “Spanish flu” virus, which killed tens of millions of people, in order to understand how the pathogen was so virulent. The researchers flew to Alaska to take frozen lung tissues from a woman who was buried in permafrost.By teasing genetic scraps out of these precious samples and from autopsy tissues stored in formalin, the team painstakingly reconstructed the virus’ genetic code in a top-security lab at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Unlike most viruses circulating today, however, and to the general astonishment of scientists, these ancient specimens dating from the last Ice Age are not only bigger, but far more complex genetically. M. sibericum has more than 500 genes, while another family of giant virus discovered in 2003, Pandoravirus, has 2,500. The Influenza A virus, by contrast, has only eight.


Mysterious Siberian craters attributed to methane. Permafrost methane release might have begun

Remember the “mysterious” craters in Siberia? You know, the ones which “no one could explain”? Well, geologists had a pretty good idea what was happening, and the studies they recently conducted confirmed their theories. The craters are caused by methane seeping from the melting permafrost.

The crater in Siberia is 30 meters wide, and probably over 100 meters deep. It was caused by methane.

Air near the bottom of the crater contained very high concentrations of methane – about 9.6%. In case you’re wondering, the normal concentration of methane in air is somewhere at 0.000179%. So, sorry to burst your bubble guys, but there was never any serious talk about meteorite crashes, missile explosions or aliens. If you’ve read that somewhere, you can just cross it off your list of serious science journalism.

The Russian researchers from the  Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard working in the area attribute the hole formation to the abnormally hot Yamal summers of 2012 and 2013, which were warmer than usual by an average of about 5°C.  What does global warming have to do with this? Well, the permafrost has huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in it. If it starts to melts, it starts to release those gases and dramatically exacerbates global warming. The only questions is if this warming was caused by the two abnormally hot winters, or, as Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten, a geochemist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany believes, by a slow and steady thaw in the region.

The depths of the craters (there are quite many) are not known, but when Russian scientists lowered a 50 meter cable with a camera to it, they couldn’t even see the bottom – so it’s much deeper than that. They believe there is a pool of water somewhere between 70 and 80 meters, but its impossible at the moment to say how deep that pool really is.

 “Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” says Andrei Plekhanov, one of the scientists working in the area. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running, it’s rather spooky.”

There are several risks associated with this phenomenon. The most obvious would be of someone actually falling in such a crater, but in the remote areas of Siberia, the risk is fairly small. Much more concerning is the risk of trapped methane threatening local communities and industries.

 “If [a release] happens at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field that is only 30 km away, it could lead to an accident, and the same if it happens in a village,” says Plekhanov.

crater siberia

However, in the long run, the risk remains global warming. If you look at a satellite picture of the area, you see countless rather similar holes, and though there’s not yet an official explanation as to how they came to be, it seems safe to say that permafrost methane leakage is also responsible. The accelerated effect this phenomenon will lead has not yet been studied.



A 30,000 year-old virus is active again after it thawed from Siberian permafrost

It sounds like the synopsis for an apocalyptic movie: scientists uncover a dormant 30,000 years old virus trapped frozen deep in the Siberian permafrost, after it thawed however the researchers were astonished to find the virus was still active and began to infect. The bad news: it’s not a movie plot, this is for real and it was just recently announced to the public. The good news: the ancient virus doesn’t affect humans, just amoebas as far as we can tell for now. The discovery still raises a sum of important questions: what if the virus was indeed capable of infecting humans? How long or what are the actual chances that a given virus can survive for such a long time? Will episodes such as these become common in light of permafrost melting in the Siberian regions and other similar parts of the world as a result of climate change?

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, said: “This is the first time we’ve seen a virus that’s still infectious after this length of time.”

The ancient virus was discovered buried deep in ice some 30 m (100 feet) and belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago, called Pithovirus sibericum. Like you might imagine, there are a number of peculiarities about it. For one, it’s extremely large; so large that it can be observed via microscope measuring 1.5 micrometres in length. It’s the biggest of its class found so far.


The virus only infects amoebas, not humans.

The other peculiar thing about it is that it’s still active after 30,000 years. It hasn’t infected anything since, but as soon as it was taken to a lab, French scientists found it munches on amoebas – single celled organisms.

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cells,” said Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS.

What if the virus could have affected humans, though? That’s the big question that’s on everybody’s mind. Smallpox for instance, an infectious disease responsible for 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century, has been completely eradicated. Not one single case has been reported in the past few years. What if a new strain of smallpox or some other ancient killer virus that affects human gets dug up next time?

An ancient strain

Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further. The local government doesn’t mind much of this, however, and is seeing at as an opportunity to begin exploiting resources. Drilling and digs means that there’s a chance even more viruses such as this might surface.

“It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from,” Prof Claverie warns.

Considering that there hasn’t really been a precedent such as this, how common are such ancient virus re-activation events? Was this just a fluke?

“That’s the six million dollar question,” said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, who was commenting on the research.

“Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding – but just how long other viruses could remain viable in permafrost is anyone’s guess. It will depend a lot on the actual virus. I doubt they are all as robust as this one.”

He added: “We freeze viruses in the laboratory to preserve them for the future. If they have a lipid envelope – like flu or HIV, for example – then they are a bit more fragile, but the viruses with an external protein shell – like foot and mouth and common cold viruses – survive better.

“But it’s the freezing-thawing that poses the problems, because as the ice forms then melts there’s a physical damaging effect. If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast.”