Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Global Warming Undermining Russia’s Position in the North

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – Global warming is undermining Russia’s position in the North on both sea and land: the Northern Sea Route will soon be sufficiently ice-free year-round that ships won’t have to rely on Russian icebreakers to traverse it, and pipelines and other infrastructure on land in the Russian North will collapse or force Moscow to find enormous sums to fix them.

            The successful January voyage of the LNG ship Christophe de Margerie from Savetta to the Bering Straits, a distance of 2474 nautical miles, was traversed in just under 11 days without the need of any icebreaker assistance is being celebrated in Moscow as “a step towards year-round commercial shipping on that route” (mintrans.gov.ru/press-center/news/9838).

            Russian transportation minister Vitaly Savelyev went on to say that the ship’s voyage was “a historical day for the development of the Northern Sea Route and domestic shipping” (mintrans.gov.ru/press-center/news/9838 and thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic-lng/2021/01/step-closer-year-round-shipments-northern-sea-route).

            That it certainly is but in a way that the Russian government may come to regret. If ships can navigate this route without the assistance of icebreakers for almost the entire year, Russia’s ability to control passage which it has done up to now because it is the only country with sufficient icebreaker capacity to do so will be much reduced.

            Not only will that mean that countries without icebreakers of their own can take advantage of this route but that those with some icebreakers may decide that investing in significantly more of them is not worthwhile, especially given their cost and long construction times.

            As serious as this development is for Russia, the other impact of global warming – on the more than 60 percent of Russian territory underlain by permafrost – may be even greater. Russians always refer to that as “the eternal permafrost.” But global warming means that it is no longer “eternal,” Oleg Ivanov writes (eastrussia.ru/material/i-vse-taki-ona-ne-vechnaya/).

            The EastRussia commentator says baldly: “The degradation of the eternal permafrost is gathering sped and threatens global risks both to nature and to the infrastructure erected over it. The harm is already assessed as amounting to billions of rubles. Soon the account will go up to hundreds of billions.”

            As the permafrost melts, the ground turns into swampland and anything built on it – houses, roads, or pipelines – collapses as its foundation sinks into the ground. But that is not the only impact of its melting: it is releasing harmful gases, it is making forest fires in the region more common, and in some cases, people are becoming sick as ancient bacteria emerge.

            Combatting any one of these things would be a challenge to any government; dealing with all of them at once is likely to be overwhelming, especially as an adequate response requires not just propping up old buildings and securing pipelines and roads but making sure that all new construction is designed to withstand this change.

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