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Permafrost retreats to the North Pole

Permafrost retreats to the North Pole

08.12.2011 — Analysis

The government of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District is getting ready to the 10th International Conference on Permafrost, which will take place in Salekhard in June 2012. The large-scale "northern" event organized by the International Permafrost Association every four years will be held in Russia for the first time.

The problem of permafrost thawing is of the most immediate interest to Yamal with its massive industrial infrastructure. As the RusBusinessNews columnist has found it out, the climate change dynamic is creating a serious threat to the main gas-producing region of Russia. The experts who are going to discuss how to maintain the infrastructure built on permafrost think that the Arctic Region needs absolutely different methods of economic management.

Global warming poses a large problem for Russia with permafrost accounting for 65% of its total area. 90% of gas and 75% of oil - the principal export products of Russia - are extracted from frost-bound soils. Cities and terminals, electric power plants and airfields, thousands of kilometers of roads and trunk pipelines have been built on permafrost over the years of development of the northern areas. No other country of the world can boast such grandiose infrastructure within the Arctic circle or in its vicinity; therefore, Russia can demonstrate convincingly what people need to attain harmony between expansion of industrial and residential development and permafrost protection.

According to the Roshydromet assessment report, over the last 25 years the temperature of the permafrost in the northern areas of Western Siberia has increased by 1 degree. By the middle of the 21st century, the southern borderline of perennially frozen rocks will move to the north for another 150-200 kilometers. In some areas intensive thawing of soils can cause detachment of the seasonally thawed layer from deep permafrost layers. At present, the thawed layer is adding 2 centimeters a year.

Experts say that nothing good will come out of the warming. Natural ecosystems are not able to adapt to rapid changes, thus increasing the risk of climatic and economic cataclysms. Vladimir Chuprov, a representative of Greenpeace-Russia, states that the Yamal Peninsular is changing its landscape: soils are caving and lakes are disappearing, which has never been observed before. Ice has started to get stabilized later on water bodies, thus causing problems with herding reindeer to new grazing grounds.

Oleg Anisimov, head of the department at the State Hydrological Institute, points out the intensification of the scouring of the coastline in the Far North: The territory is "shrinking" by 30 square kilometers annually. On the coast there are ports, water towers and other structures that have started to deteriorate gradually. The expert thinks that new construction concepts should be developed urgently for the Arctic Circle.

Vladimir Melnikov, the director of the Institute of the Earth Cryosphere, the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that large reservoirs of water are developing around pipelines extended through icy rocks. Soils are sloughing and breaking pipes. In the scientist's opinion, construction of pipelines needs a conceptually different approach, as rectification of technogenic accidents is very costly. There are also problems related to well-heads where increased emission of heat is observed. In addition to thawing, there are newly emerged permafrost areas, which may occur on the sea floor and which aggravate the exposure of the oil-and-gas infrastructure. Sometimes there are gas and water discharges from the subsoil, resulting in formation of ice blocks. This process can cause a technogenic disaster at the hydrocarbon offshore production fields.

The Bellona Environmental Organization asserts that oil and gas companies should be very concerned about climatic risks.

It is very difficult to estimate costs of adaptation to climatic changes: According to O. Anisimov, such estimation has never been performed. At the request of Greenpeace-Russia, scientists developed only basic methods of estimation. The experts who developed soil stabilization technologies for Gazprom facilities estimated the zero-level costs will increase from 3 to 50%. In total, according to V. Chuprov, the warm-up mitigation measures can cost approximately 1% of the Russian gross domestic product. It is not much, especially, taking into account that the rectification of disastrous consequences of permafrost thawing will cost up to 20% of GDP.

Gazprom in-house specialists are preparing requirements to structural strength, anticipating an increase of soils temperature to 1 degree above zero, which will happen, based on preliminary estimates, by 2050. However, the situation is changing fast and the specialists of Gazprom Dobycha Nadym, LLC, (the company is developing the famous Bovanenkovskoye gas field) expect that soils will reach above-zero temperatures in 20 years, taking into account currently observed changes. It should be kept in mind that the temperature threshold is minus 2 degrees and then permafrost loses its stability.

Sergey Kirpotin, the vice-rector of the Tomsk State University, believes that nature has already triggered self-destructive processes. It turned out that scientists monitor by no means all methane emissions. The impact of this natural gas exceeds twenty times the carbon dioxide impact on greenhouse effect. Western Siberia accounts for 40% of the world's swamp ecosystems. In the south of the region they have very positive effect, absorbing atmospheric carbon, but in the north their impact is negative, as there are numerous pools and puddles that emit much more methane than lakes. Certainly, scientists are not able to monitor millions of such small bodies of water. The situation is getting worse rapidly, as swamps absorb 20 times less atmospheric carbon than emit it with methane.

The dramatic processes that are developing in nature cannot be brought to a halt. S. Kirpotin thinks that the critical threshold followed by the chain reaction has been passed. Tundra now has much fewer white lichens reflecting light and much more lakes accumulating heat. The climatic changes in the Arctic region are very serious. The problem how to change atmospheric emissions should have been solved yesterday - today destructive processes can only be slowed down. However, in Russia there are still a lot of people who have skeptical attitude, thinking that scientists mystify manufacturers. Engineers rarely see connection between collapsing towers and oil-and-gas pipeline accidents and climatic changes. This connection is obvious for hydrologists.

The experts are sure that leading countries should embark on joint restructuring of their economies rather than compete with each other in the number of nuclear missiles. In the opinion of Sergey Kirpotin, the priority should be given to efficient use of resources, energy saving, proper waste management, stringent requirements and standards, engine and fuel quality improvement, new approaches in construction, etc.

Vladimir Melnikov told RusBusinessNews that at the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost discussion will cover a very wide array of issues, including geopolitics and even the impact of space on the global climate. The scientists intend to reach agreement on priority areas of research in the Arctic Circle, while the politicians are planning to discuss uniform rules for industrial development of the Arctic Region.

The total number of conference participants is expected to be more than 600 experts, representatives of public organizations and business communities from 35 countries. The government of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (YNAD), acting as one of the organizers of the conference "Resources and Risks of Permafrost Regions in the Changing World", intends to invite 150 students and young scientists to participate in discussions, providing them with financial support. The organization of young permafrost researchers will conduct a contest for the best report among the youth audience.

The YNAD government authorities, having allocated grants to future scientists, realize the importance of timely training of young specialists for work in north-polar regions and development of measures aimed at prevention of technogenic accidents within northern latitudes.

Vladimir Petrov

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