Permafrost, or perennially frozen soil, which occupies around a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s territory, may not be as permanent as its name suggests. Over the past 30 years, permafrost has warmed between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. This presents a major challenge to Arctic communities and ecosystems, and has the potential to further amplify and accelerate climate change.
Russia is particularly affected. Permafrost covers more than 60% of its territory and several large river ports and cities, namely Norilsk, Yakutsk and Vorkuta are built upon frozen soil; these are cities with over a hundred thousand inhabitants. Record-breaking temperatures, coupled with devastating wildfires, which recently hit permafrost zones of northeast Siberia, continue to raise fears about the potential releases of previously trapped carbon and methane into the atmosphere. It is even feared that deadly pathogens that were frozen could re-emerge.
How is the warming, thawing and degradation of permafrost affecting Russia’s Arctic ambitions? What steps is Russia taking to address this issue? How can Arctic states collaborate in this regard?
The economic cost of thaw
The thawing of permafrost threatens to inflict serious economic as well as environmental damage. The biggest concern surrounds the potential risks thawing permafrost presents to the infrastructure built upon it. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, as much as USD 250 billion worth of physical infrastructure is at risk.
The infrastructure of the energy sector ― pipelines, pump stations, and extraction facilities ― is of particular concern, owing to its economic importance and environmental risks associated with oil spills. It is estimated that 35,000 incidents take place annually on energy infrastructure in Western Siberia, 21% of which are linked to land and ground degradation. By 2050, up to 45% of Russia's Arctic hydrocarbon extraction fields could suffer severe damages, and several pipelines, namely the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline and gas pipelines from the Yamal-Nenets region, would be at considerable risk. In addition to hydrocarbons, permafrost thaw puts Moscow’s ambitious mining projects at risk, and may render abandoned mines, whose wastes are locked up in the frozen soil, a liability.
Permafrost degradation is also detrimental to the roads and rail tracks that cross frozen land, as well as airports, riverine and oceanic port facilities, and military installations built on permafrost. According to Russia’s Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov, more than 40% of infrastructure facilities and buildings have already suffered damage. The risk to military installations should not be understated, as their degradation could weaken Russia’s ability to protect its northern borders, ensure the safety of the Northern Sea Route, and exercise the perimeter defence of the Kola Peninsula, which is of strategic importance to Russian national security. According to Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow at Chatham House, Russian media claims that military and dual-use installations along the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation are adapted to changing conditions are largely unproven.
The areas that are most susceptible to permafrost degradation have not only a well-developed oil and gas infrastructure but also radioactive waste repositories and nuclear stations. This is an issue of major concern as permafrost thaw affects the bearing capacity of their structural foundations, which can potentially increase the occurrence of incidents, with a potential to release hazardous substances into the environment. Last year’s oil spill in Norilsk, which is believed to have been linked to a permafrost thaw, contaminated an area of approximately 350 square kilometres. As permafrost melting accelerates, such accidents will become more common.
Permafrost also threatens to derail Russian agricultural security. Even though permafrost thaw is expected to open up millions of acres of land for arable farming, land that sits atop melted permafrost is often lopsided and difficult to manage, as well as acidic, thin and unable to support cash crops (which rely on almost year-round usage). It is thus unclear how much agricultural benefit Russia can draw from Siberia, especially at a point where climate change will lead to increased droughts and more volatile wheat yield in Russia’s southern bread baskets.
Adverse environmental and health impacts
The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report listed permafrost thaw as a defined climactic tipping point that could be reached within the next 50 years. Tipping points refer to thresholds on physical climatic zones. Once they have been hit, irreversible changes occur that could lead to a cascade effect, wherein other climatic thresholds are reached with even greater speed. In the case of permafrost, rising global temperatures threaten to melt frozen soil, releasing billions of tons of organic matter, transforming it into carbon dioxide through the oxidation process. Add in the effect of climate change causing higher volumes and acidity of rain, increasing wildfires, human activities and melting sea ice, which exposes permafrost to warmer waters - fears are legitimate.
It is estimated that in the permafrost-covered parts of Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and Canada, there is as much as 1600 billion metric tons of carbon locked up. Such an injection would be considered an irreversible change, as it takes millions of years for the carbon to be ‘locked back’ into the earth, sparking a further acceleration of the greenhouse effect, potentially having devastating knock-on impacts like rising sea levels and more violent storms, for example. Thawing is also causing limestone deposits to release methane into the environment; the 2020 Siberian heatwave saw a spike in methane releases and methane contributes to a positive feedback loop of warming.
Thawing permafrost also releases mercury and radon into the surroundings. Mercury poisoning from water sources has been reported in permafrost-regions; this release on a larger scale could have devastating consequences on Russian health security. Moreover, the thawing of permafrost is linked to increases in radon, which is considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer.
Another issue of particular concern is the possibility that thawing permafrost could potentially unlock a Pandora’s box of diseases that have been dormant for thousands of years or that the human population has never been exposed to before. In 2016, the carcass of a 70-year-old ice-preserved reindeer was exposed by thawing permafrost. The carcass turned out to be infected with Anthrax with viable spores which ended up infecting multiple people and killing one child.
Measures taken by Moscow
There is a growing understanding in Russia that permafrost thaw poses a serious problem to infrastructure and industry, and complicates Moscow’s ambitious development plans in the Arctic. To date, however, the issue of permafrost degradation has been absent from official policy documents. Moscow now plans to establish a new nationwide monitoring system for permafrost, as well as to amend two federal laws. Within three years, a network of 140 stations will be set up to study the permafrost. In addition, a laboratory for permafrost studies ― the first of its kind in Russia ― will open in the Yamal-Nenets region this year. It is worth noting that the focus in Moscow remains on adaptation rather than mitigation strategies.
Thawing lands, thawing relations?
Despite worsening of Russia-West relations on other fronts, negative consequences of permafrost degradation bind Arctic states together. The Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum for Arctic affairs, constitutes an ideal venue where permafrost thaw could be addressed collaboratively. In May this year, Russia assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term. Environmental protection and climate change rank high on its chairmanship agenda, with particular emphasis being placed on collaborative research. During its chairmanship, Russia will have an opportunity to enhance scientific research and collaboration with other Arctic states, and to develop collective approaches to examining the effects of permafrost degradation on the region. As suggested by the Arctic Institute, closer interaction among weather observation services of individual Arctic states is needed, with the aim to eventually establish an effective global permafrost monitoring system.
The Kremlin already recognises that thawing permafrost can have devastating economic as well as environmental consequences. Although Moscow already pursues adaptation measures for the impacts of permafrost thaw, its emissions reduction targets lack ambition. This is a global concern and a substantial reduction in emissions by all major polluters will be needed if there is any hope of preserving permafrost areas and preventing tipping points from being crossed. In addition, improved data sharing and scientific collaboration among Arctic states, especially on engineering solutions, will help anticipate and manage the risks collaboratively. Although the science is alarming, meaningful action can help stem the tide of thawing and mitigate Moscow’s strategic concerns for the region.