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Permafrost is permanent? How to preserve the North’s unique ecology systems

TASS writes about who is more responsible for the permafrost's thawing and how the new federal law could protect the North's unique ecology systems

MOSCOW, February 5. /TASS/. The permafrost, which takes 65% of Russia's territory and about 30% of the world, in the XXI century, faces the threat of degradation in the climate warming and due to the anthropogenic reasons. Scientists forecast - only the fifth part of the Russian permafrost area can survive by middle of the century.

Experts and authorities of the Russian Northern and Far Eastern regions hope a new bill on rational care for the permafrost would help in preserving the area by introducing binding requirements to use new technologies and new construction standards.

TASS writes about who is more responsible for the permafrost's thawing - the climate or the human, and also about how the new federal law could protect the North's unique ecology systems.

When permafrost may disappear

Scientists forecast only the fifth part of Russia's permafrost may survive to middle of the XXI century. Northern cities can see the thawing's consequences - pits in the ground, new swamps, problems with roads. Experts see the warming climate is not the only reason. They point to human activities, inappropriate approaches to construction and engineering facilities.

"The climate does affect, of course," Director of the Russian Institute for Permafrost Studies Mikhail Zheleznyak said. "If this period (warming) continues for 20-30 years, the consequences would be evident. The thawing develops mostly from human activities and from wildfires. The anthropogenic factor is the biggest reason. Under certain conditions, its consequences may be even bigger than from the climate change."

Nevertheless, Oleg Anisimor of the Hydrology Institute said, the climate's impact cannot be ignored. "The permafrost's degradation due to the climate may influence greatly life in the Arctic regions," he said.

Most affected, he continued, would be the North's indigenous peoples' traditional areas, as due to the climate changes the people would have to get adapted to the new conditions. "We register drifting borders of the biomes in the climate changes, and, including, reducing areas of the Arctic tundra. These processes continue now, and the modelling shows they will continue with growing intensity within the current century," the scientist said.

How to adjust construction technologies

The infrastructures in Arctic cities are worn out, and the permafrost's thawing will cause further problems. The local regions say those possible consequences should be addressed at the stage of projecting and construction of new houses or roads. "The projects should mind the scales, which climate scientists are forecasting," a local scientist Zheleznyak said. "At the state of making projects, authors should consider different scenarios, including the warming."

The Nenets Autonomous Region is reviewing construction regulations after it had to face problems with construction of a road between Naryan-Mar and Usinsk. The road should have connected the region with Russia's other parts. However, as the work continued in the tundra area, specialists saw that due to the warming the ground settlement exceeded the planned rates, thus causing additional works to roll the ground and subsequently requiring additional costs, the local department on construction, housing, energy and transport told TASS.

Most facilities, built on permafrost, have exhausted the exploitation term of 25-30 years, Oleg Anisimov said. "Take for example the pipelines, which are there for 35-40 years. Anyway, they require changes, and in building new lines other approaches would be necessary," the scientist said. According to him, the Russian Transport Ministry in planning the federal transport network eyes the fact that "in coming decades the situation would aggravate, and thus construction technologies require some new approaches."

Adaptation is not bound to be large-scale and expensive, scientists say. "We do not have to install expensive cooling equipment, we could use cooling for the snow; or - on the contrary - we could add insulation layers for the engineering facilities or certain passages," Zheleznyak said.

The new laws should help

Legislators and experts hope a new federal and regional laws could settle problems and prevent the permafrost’s further degradation, as they would regulate work of companies, including construction companies, in the Arctic fragile ecology balance.

Yakutia was the first region to react by adopting in December, 2017, the region’s first law on the permafrost’s protection. "The law regulates further monitoring and scientific research," Yakutia’s legislator Vladimir Prokofyev told TASS. "The objective is to have this considered in projecting and construction."

The region’s scientists and legislators in 2016 offered a federal law, he said. "The bills (the federal and the regional - TASS) do not conflict, but offer regulations at different levels," he added. All Northern, Far Eastern and North-Western regions supported the initiative, he said. "I hope, in early 2018 we shall present the federal bill officially."

The State Duma’s deputy, member of the energy committee, Viktor Zubarev, representing the Krasnoyarsk Region, agrees it is necessary to have federal and regional legal regulations. "Laws on the permafrost will protect this natural phenomenon in implementation of new energy and transport projects in the Arctic; will regulate use of new ecology-friendly technologies," he said.

Adaptation measures and support for sciences

While the laws are not in force, the regions work on new methods and technologies. Experts say it is necessary to support such initiatives, using the existing international experience. "The adaptation measures are well-known," expert Oleg Anisimov said, explaining the successful experience in China and the US "They have the mountainous Tibet railway, there is a highway, and they use the well-ventilated soil additions. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which the US built in the 60s, has not seen a single failure. Though it crosses very complicated areas and though the permafrost is thawing in Alaska very intensively," he said.

In the Krasnoyarsk Region’s Dudinka, the local authorities plan organizing a center to monitor sustainability and maintenance of buildings and houses on permafrost. The center will be organized at the Norilsk State Industrial Institute. Under this project, all houses in Norilsk will have seismic recorders to monitor the basements online.

Zheleznyak pointed to the importance of timely support for Russian solutions. "We have many technologies, offered in Russia, which have moved abroad and which are used successfully abroad, including in China," he said.

Besides, he said, the current level of financial support for scientific institutions does not allow them to buy modern equipment. "This is the death threat to sciences. Without additional financing, they will shrink and degrade," he said.

Another direction is to attract local communities to surveying the permafrost, says Professor Kenji Yoshikawa of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the US - from 2012, he continues a project of measuring the permafrost at many schools in the US, Canada, Mongolia and across Siberia and the Far East. The professor is adamant - if children participate in research, they will surely care for the permafrost.

Besides, the scientist studies practices of the indigenous peoples, who use the permafrost as ice storages. I install loggers there (to measure temperatures in the permafrost’s upper layer - TASS) in Yakutia’s ice storages, where the locals keep through the year meat, ice - using them as underground fridges, he told TASS during a visit to Yakutsk.