Undervalued permafrost

Russian and Western media spread the news of Russia’s losses from permafrost thawing, the multi-billion dollar scale of which was let known by Alexander Krutikov, deputy head of the Ministry for Development of Russian Far East. According to members of public environmental organizations, in order to reduce losses, the Russian Federation should adopt a strategy for adaptation to climate change as soon as possible.

According to the deputy minister of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East Krutikov, the Russian economy loses from 50 to 150 billion rubles annually due to permafrost thawing; and thawing of the soil threatens buildings and other structures built in the Arctic. “The scale is very serious. Pipes burst, piles collapse,”the official said; according to him, the amount of damage to Russia in connection with the thawing of permafrost will only grow in the future.


These are no sensations: the data of Roshydromet speak about huge damages. “During the period of systematic observations (approximately from the mid-1990s), monitoring sites show an increase in the average depth of seasonal thawing of permafrost by 1-2 cm in Western Siberia and Yakutia and by 2-6 cm in the European part of Russia,” says meteorologists’report. According to the agency, up to 55 billion rubles ($ 850 million) are spent annually on pipeline maintenance in permafrost areas.


The situation is even more difficult with buildings built on permafrost. Climate change has led to a decrease in the permafrost bearing capacity compared to the 1970s by 17%, and in some areas, up to 45%, the Roshydromet report says. A living proof isin the village of Ayanka, Kamchatka Kray, where a two-story residential building began to lurch. According to the website of the regional government, that was caused by the abnormal heat. The house stands on stilts, which began to move due to the melting of the upper layer of soil in the permafrost zone...


At the end of September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report in which scientists warned about the unprecedented extent of permafrost thawing in the upcoming years. “Even if global warming is kept below two degrees, then by 2100, up to 25% of the near-surface (3-4-meter depth) permafrost will melt. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase dramatically, there is a possibility that approximately 70% of all near-surface permafrost can be lost,”follows from a special report by climate experts.


In 2007, agroupofAmericanscientistsmadeanestimatethat to maintain the infrastructure in Alaska in the conditions of permafrost thawing, about 3-6 billion dollars will be needed up to 2030. Newestimatesfor the American North in 2019 showed that the cost of eliminating the effects of warming could be $340-700 million per year. By 2050, warming could affect about a fifth of structures and infrastructure in the Russian permafrost zone, George Washington University scientists say. This will be approximately 7.5% of Russia's gross domestic product. 


The calculations do not take into account another kind of damage: the risk of epidemiological diseases spreading increases,the scientists say.And according to unofficial information, it is the thawing of permafrost that can be the cause of a virus of unknown origin that has recently spread in the Tyumen region.

“Although there are no such prospective (financial) estimates for Russia, it can be assumed that, given the significantly larger number of infrastructure facilities in the permafrost zone, the costs of maintaining them will be higher,” the Roshydromet report on climate risks from 2017 claims.


Representatives of the department believe that it is possible to reduce risks through financial investments. According to Oleg Anisimov, head of the department of the State Hydrological Institute of Roshydromet, the thawing of permafrost will pose no threat to oil and gas projects if companies timely allocate the necessary money for maintenance.


While the adaptation strategy at the national level is only being discussed, the northern business is formulating its adaptation plans - the gas producer PJSC Novatek is developing a new infrastructure to cope with climate change in the next few decades. The owner of the company Leonid Mikhelson stated. 


According to ALROSA, in Norilsk, about one fourth of the houses are under close scrutiny: the diamond mining company that monitors soil temperatures and has a special permafrost surveillance department.


“The study of permafrost is one of the most unfairly forgotten tasks and priorities of the state,” said Alexander Krutikov. “As a ministry responsible for the development of the Arctic, we cannot ignore this topic because it directly affects economic development.”


However, while the Ministry of Far East Development pleads for paying attention to the problem of permafrost, the “special attention” of lawmakers to the northern territories is expressed in the paragraphs of the law, which provides tax incentives for hydrocarbon production projects in oil fields in the Arctic: instead of stimulating conservation of the vulnerable nature of the North, they support new costly fossils production facilities.


According to experts, both fires and floods that swept the regions of Russia are directly related to permafrost melting. And while the federal authorities do not catch this connection yet, it is necessary to react to the situation, representatives of the Russian Social and Ecological Union say. In their statement, they urge “to develop a National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change, provide for the mandatory development of regional adaptation plans in 2019as soon as possible, and to form regional working groups with public participation to develop and implement plans.”

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