Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Moscow Seriously Underestimating Rate and Impact of Melting of Permafrost in North, German Geographer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – The central Russian government is failing to recognize the speed with which permafrost underlying half of the country is now melting even though the degradation of the northern landscape is undermining existing infrastructure and making further development of the North ever more expensive, Mathias Ulrich says.

            A specialist at Leipzig’s Institute of Geography, a center for research in the Russian North since Soviet times, draws that conclusion on the basis for his investigations of permafrost melt and its impact in the Republic of Sakha (dw.com/ru/немецкий-географ-в-россии-недооценивают-скорость-таяния-вечной-мерзлоты/a-46506194).

                There, more than almost anywhere else, Ulrich says, the impact of the increasingly rapid melting of permafrost is in evidence both because of the formation of thermokarst lakes which are destroying pasture and crop land and because of the fact that every year, the level of permafrost is falling by seven centimeters from the surface.

            In the past, the upper stratum of the permafrost has melted during the summer and then refrozen; but now, as a result of climate change, possibly from natural causes but exacerbated by human activity, ever more of the permafrost layer melts in the summer but does not refreeze in the winter, Ulrich says, leading to the formation of lakes and bog lands.

            Those can no longer be used for agriculture, and they are leading to the collapse of infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines, highways, railways, and even entire cities and towns.  And the degradation of the permafrost is adding new costs to any project civil or military for the development of Russia’s far north.

            Russian scholars and local populations understand this, but in Moscow and throughout European Russia, many Russians and especially Russian officials have failed to recognize both the speed of this process and its consequences, the German geographer says. They view it as a local problem and thus not their concern.

            Were less of Russia not in the far north, that might be understandable; but so much of Russia is in the permafrost zone, such a view is indefensible. But even more, Ulrich says, it fails to take into account something else: what is happening in this zone affects everyone, including Russians who live further south.

            As the permafrost layer melts and doesn’t refreeze, various greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, and these in turn accelerate the process of global warming not only in the north but everywhere, creating a cycle which is both vicious and ever-expanding whether officials admit it or not.


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