Waiting for the deluge: what are the threats of the permafrost melting in Russian North

Waiting for the deluge: what are the threats of the permafrost melting in Russian North

29 April , 16:50
In the contrary to the forecasts about the beneficial effects of the global warming on the climate in Russia, its consequences for our country can be catastrophic.

In May, the second stage of the study of the dynamics of the Arctic coast, conducted by the team of the Laboratory of Geoecology of the North of the Geography Department of Moscow State University, should end.

The debate about the global warming has been going on for more than two decades. Someone believes that it can lead to civilization's death, while someone considers all this a conspiracy of scientists who need funding. More and more predictions are terrifying the world, but there will almost always be someone who declares them insufficiently accurate, too pessimistic, or even completely incompetent.

Victor Kuzovkov

True, there is one caveat - the past decades are enough for some climatic shifts to already manifest themselves. And at the moment, scientists have some experimentally confirmed basis that allows you to confirm something, refute something and adjust, in this way, any long-term forecast.

It should be noted that not the last place is assigned in the hot climatic disputes of Russia. This happened for two reasons: firstly, many of us believe that global warming will benefit Russia only because of the general improvement of its difficult climate, and secondly, because of the large area of Russian territory covered by permafrost. The fact is that the issue of permafrost thawing is so important that it occupies a separate place in the general climate problem. And this is explained simply: permafrost, when thawed, can release so much carbon that the global warming process can accelerate like an avalanche.

That is why the state of permafrost in Russia has become pretty closely monitored. In particular, already in May, the second stage of the study of the dynamics of the Arctic coast, which is conducted by the team of the Laboratory of Geoecology of the North of the Faculty of Geography of Moscow State University, should be completed. This research is being conducted as part of the project of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) No. 18-05-60300 “Thermal abrasion of the sea coast of the Russian Arctic”, and promises to become one of the largest in modern history. Scientists hope to collect data that will allow them to create the most complete picture of the destruction of the Arctic coast, reveal its mechanisms and find out the degree of influence of global climate processes on global and local processes of destruction of the coast in the Arctic zone of Russia.

This study is, in addition to purely scientific, also of great practical importance. We know the importance of pipeline infrastructure for Russia, a significant part of which is located in the Arctic zone. The problem of increased thawing of permafrost is already relevant for Russian gas workers and oil industry workers, since the standard construction technology in the permafrost zone involves laying the foundation or driving piles to the depth at which permafrost is stable throughout the year. Now, when these parameters began to change, people often encounter the problem of deformation of foundations, skewing of buildings and the impossibility of their further operation.

Due to the changing climate, such Russian cities as Vorkuta, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Salekhard, Chita and Ulan-Ude were already under attack. And by the end of the twenty-first century, such northern cities as Magadan, Yakutsk, Igarka may be at risk. Currently, due to permafrost degradation, up to 60 percent of objects in Igarka, Dikson, Khatanga are deformed, up to 100 percent in villages of the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, 22 percent in Tiksi, 55 percent in Dudinka, 50 percent in Pevek and Amderme, about 40 percent are in Vorkuta.

The problem of destruction of the Arctic coast is also quite acute. Under the blows of waves and climate, the Arctic coast recedes by about 1-5 meters annually, and in some places, up to 10 meters per year. It would seem that on the scale of our Siberia this is not very much, and yet: in a year Russia loses hundreds of square kilometers of its territory, that is, the territory of a small European state, like Liechtenstein. Also, one should not forget about the ports and cities located on the coast, for which these 10 meters per year can become quite fatal.

In general, the permafrost area on Earth reaches 35 million square kilometers, or about 25% of all terrestrial land. The reserves of carbon dioxide and methane in it are such that, with active thawing, permafrost is able to release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than all technogenic emissions. In general, according to some estimates, the permafrost carbon reserves reach 1.67 trillion tons, which is about 8.3 times more than the carbon content in the whole atmosphere. It is clear that not all this carbon is in a gaseous state, to a large extent these are still not decomposed organic residues, but the fact of the matter is that after thawing, the processes of decay of organics accumulated over millions of years will go several orders of magnitude faster.

Studies show that the increase in minimum soil temperatures occurs throughout Russia. And most of all it is in zones with permafrost - in Western and Eastern Siberia, in Transbaikalia. Over the past 10 years, it amounted to 0.4-0.8 ° C, which, it seems, is not very much, but on the scale of a century it can be simply fatal.

Modern research is seriously approaching the study of the processes of climate change in the Russian North. In particular, the aforementioned study of the Faculty of Geography of Moscow State University was conducted using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and field observations were carried out almost throughout the Russian sector of the Arctic, up to Chukotka. It turned out that in conditions of climate change, especially noticeable in the Arctic, in the warm season, the border of drifting ice goes farther to the North, and the coastal area is freed from ice for a longer period. As a result, due to the increase in the duration of the thermally and dynamically active period, the duration of the period of thawing of frozen soils and the mechanical effect of waves on the shore increase.

Alas, despite all the skeptics' objections, after 2005 there has indeed been an acceleration in the rate of destruction of the Arctic coast. However, scientists do not yet see the catastrophe in progress. The fact is that only in sum the thermal and wave effects can give the greatest effect and destroy the largest possible stretch of coast. But it is often noted that in warm years the sea does not storm so much, and vice versa, frequent and severe storms drive warm weather, sometimes thousands of kilometers deep into the mainland. As a result, the processes of coastal destruction are not going as fast as they could, and in addition, the process of moving washed out soil from the coast to the open sea is slowing down.

However, trends in climate warming are quite alarming. In particular, in almost all measuring sites in Russia, an increase in the thickness of the melt layer in the summer period is recorded. The US aerospace agency NASA even introduced a computer-based climate model, according to which permafrost in Russia and Alaska will disappear by 2300. The period, of course, is impressive, but you need to understand that by that time the climate will have changed so much that the sea level will rise by tens of meters, and weather changes will be simply unpredictable.

Probably the main and so far poorly understood danger is that we can miss the moment when the process of climate change becomes irreversible. Having provoked the thawing of permafrost, humanity at some point may receive an uncontrolled emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The process will begin to accelerate, it will be supplemented by the rapid melting of Antarctic glaciers, rising sea levels, and all this can grow like an avalanche, reducing the time allotted to us to correct from hundreds to tens of years. More precisely, nothing will be completely corrected, but attempts to at least preserve the situation at some acceptable level will become useless.

Therefore, all the talk that climate warming brings Russia some benefits should be taken with a great deal of skepticism. Some benefits may be found. But do they compensate for possible losses - both territorial, man-made, and others, which we may not even be aware of?

And if so, we wish our scientists success: if they just open our eyes to what is happening, this will already be their great success. Yes, and ours, of course...

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