Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘Melting of Permafrost is Converting Much of Russia into a Swamp’

Paul Goble

                Staunton, August 7 – Two-thirds of the territory of the Russian Federation is covered by permafrost, and the melting of this ice is rapidly “converting a large part of Russia into a swamp,” according to studies by British and Russian scholars reported and discussed this week in Moscow’s “Novyye izvestiya.”

            Researchers at the University of Cambridge, Veronika Vorontsova and Mariya Vasilchenko note, predict that the permafrost will according to their models melt away sometime between 2020 and 2050, but “already now,” the permafrost has disappeared in many places in northern Russia (

            With its loss, the ground under many buildings and other infrastructure has become gelatinous putting human construction above it at risk.  Many people can no longer live in houses because the foundations are collapsing, and the entire city of Dudinka in Krasnoyarsk Kray may “cease to exist” as a result.

            According to Russian scholars working in Yakutsk, Vorontsova and Vasilchenko say, permafrost which now underlies 69 percent of Russian territory is melting everywhere. But the process is not even, and some places, such as the northern part of the Yenisey River basin, have already become swamps.

            The melting of the permafrost is the result of global warming, itself the product of the release of greenhouse gases. But even if those were stopped now, something unlikely to happen, the investigators suggest, the melting of the permafrost would continue for another two decades by inertia.

            Vladislav Bolov, the head of the Emergency Situations Ministry Center for Predictions and Monitoring, says that over the next 25 years, the area in Russia now covered by permafrost will decline by 10 to 18 percent, and by mid-century, the permafrost region will decline by almost a third.

            The effects of this “will be destructive,” Bolov says, “especially in regard to automobile and railroads build across permafrost regions.”  Many roads in the region are already impassable or at best have to be constantly repaired.  And the situation will only get worse as the permafrost foundations melt away.

            Already, “up to 40 percent of the infrastructure of population points built earlier in permafrost regions” in Russia are at risk of collapse, according to Igor Chestin, the director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Russian section.  And more than 5,000 kilometers of railway track are also at risk, with some near Baikal already requiring slower speeds or intensive reconstruction. 

But in addition to these highly visible problems, there is another which may prove even more disturbing.  According to Natalaya Ryazanova, a climatologist, there is great risk that bacteria long trapped in the ice may now escape and infect people who lack any resistance to it. Moreover, she says, the release of certain gases is already harming residents.

Scholars overwhelmingly say, the two journalists continue, that the melting away of the permafrost is “an irreversible process” to which human beings must learn to adapt themselves. But in Russia as in the West, there are some researchers who question the urgency of this issue and suggest that the world has time to do so more easily.

Mikhail Grigoryev, a permafrost specialist in Yakutsk, says that global warming has been slowing over recent years and that its impact on permafrost now is not as great as it was only six or seven years ago.  But even he acknowledges that no one can predict either weather anomalies or prevent much of Russia from becoming a swamp as ever more of the permafrost disappears.

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