Permafrost continues to melt, and the scientists and officials almost no answers

Photo: © RIA Novosti, Oleg LastochkinTake the shovel somewhere in the two thirds of the vast expanses of Russia, and dig a hole at least a meter deep with a small — and you are likely to run into something solid like a rock.

But it is not a stone. This permafrost — technically defined as any type of soil that is constantly frozen state at least two years, but in some areas it goes to hundreds of meters deep into the earth, and the age of its tens of thousands of years. And it melts — exposing roads, railways and buildings across the country at risk of flooding.

"In the next 25-30 years permafrost zone in Russia may be reduced by 10 to 18%. By mid-century, this figure could increase to 15-30%, "- said Vladislav Bolov, Head of the forecasting and monitoring of the Ministry for Emergency Situations of Russia news agency" RIA Novosti "at the end of the summer. The effect, he warned, would be devastating, especially for roads and railways built in permafrost areas.

This area is a very vast area. Permafrost covers 10.7 million square kilometers of Russian territory — about 63% of the entire country.

Relying on past experience

Russian learn to live in the features of the permafrost has ever been when the first explorers penetrated into Siberia in the XVI century, and there are plenty of traditional knowledge and technology on which to build.

Siberian architect largely emerged from this experience. In such cold cities like Yakutsk and Norilsk, buildings are above the ground on stilts, which pass through the active layer and go to a depth where the ice resting on the basis of the "eternal" permafrost.

A water pipe and heating systems through the streets, not under, the high towers. "From habit it may look very strange," — says Daria Smolikova, a native of Yakutsk, who lives in Moscow since 2001. The buildings resemble centipedes, she says.

The legs of the "centipedes" help protect them from the cold in the winter — but more importantly, they keep the heat from the buildings themselves, not allowing him to go down and get that same melting permafrost, which serves as their base.

Because of this, says Smolikova, buildings Yakutsk remarkably stable, given the harsh conditions in which they are built.

Similarly, and infrastructure, including roads and railways, high-rise residential buildings, and oil and gas facilities are being built right on the frozen ground.

But all this could change if permanently frozen layer below the seasonal way to thaw the surface begins to melt, too.

"Russian Railways", the operator of more than five thousand kilometers of railways in permafrost regions, they say that is familiar with the problem and to keep fighting the sinking of the railway.

"The main effect of thawing permafrost — is subsidence. There are land that is flooded or move unpredictably. This can manifest itself as a local subsidence, up to several tens of meters, but can be as long, undulating line, which stretches for a kilometer or more ", — the" Russian Railways "in a written statement describing the impact of the process of thawing permafrost on the landscape" .

The resulting "thermokarst" landscape is rapidly emerging lakes and jagged hills interspersed with swamps.

What makes the situation even worse, resulting from accumulation of water leads to a decrease in the upper level of the permafrost, causing flooding. It also reduces the load-carrying capacity of the land, the company said.

But suffer not only the railways. In earlier reports on the effects of global warming from the Federal Meteorological Service noted that "the power bases of buildings and engineering structures located in the permafrost zone, declined in some regions of Siberia" because of changes in the carrying capacity of land, caused by warming and the increasing depth of the melt season .

However, not everyone is convinced that there is a problem.

Representative of the company for the construction of roads "Rosavtodor", which contacted by telephone, showed boldness and bravado, when asked about whether the melting of cause for concern.

"On the contrary, we will be happy," — said spokesman Andrew Menchov. "However, the smaller the permafrost, the easier it is to build a road." He did not specify what he meant, and promised an interview with an expert, "Road Agency" has not taken place.

A Smolikova who grew up in Yakutsk, said that many of the rules were flexible.

"There was a myth that because of the permafrost can not lay asphalt, because it will crack in winter. But then came the new mayor, who, they say, less than stealing, and the roads miraculously become much smoother, "- says Smolikova.

"Another myth is that in eastern Siberia can not build railroads, but as soon as Putin said that we need to produce more diamonds and precious stones, it turned out that you can," — she added.

"Personally, I think that if the house collapse in Yakutsk, it is for the same reason that no matter where it is in Russia — because of dilapidation and violations of the technology of construction."

Bolov says that "the negative impact on transport links can already be seen."

However, Mikhail Grigoriev, an expert of the Institute for the permafrost of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) in Yakutsk, who studies this phenomenon from the 1960s, is not worried.

"We observed warming. In eastern Siberia, for example, … is getting warmer — in some places, we have seen an increase in temperature by half a degree Celsius, while in others — two degrees, and it is serious. But we're not seeing catastrophic consequences, "- he said by telephone.

Melting rate affects expectations

The process, however, is progressive. "Russian Railways" assess the situation in such a way that surface temperatures rise by up to 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade in the north, and up to 0.5 degrees in the east.

Grigoriev noted that climate models on which to make such forecasts are not perfect, and the rate of warming (and thus the melting of the permafrost layer) can vary from year to year.

"It happens — but the warming has slowed in the last couple of years. Now this is not as fast as it was in 2006 or 2007, for example, "- he said.

And the shape of the melting is also not constant. It depends on the height above sea level, on the level of moisture in the soil, and on a number of other factors, which mean that the overall increase in temperatures recorded in different parts of Siberia, may range from 0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.

Danger zone

Vast Russian territory permafrost is divided into three zones — the island, the intermittent and continuous — depending on the strength and depth of freezing.

In "continuous" zone, which includes most of the Yenisei River in Siberia to the Bering Strait, the earth is frozen to a depth of constantly hundred meters, and the temperature there reaches minus ten degrees Celsius.

But the continuous zone, which is frozen tens of thousands of years, is limited to less stable and long-lasting belt "broken" and "island" areas where freezing may last only a few years at a time.

And it is in these areas insignificant increase in temperature could have far-reaching consequences.

Temperatures in zones of Western Siberia, including Yamal, will increase by six to eight degrees, and thus constitute minus three or minus four degrees Celsius, according to the calculations of Boloven MOE.

This is not enough to completely melt the earth, but it does mean that the so-called "active" surface layer, which melts in the summer, will be deeper, and will melt for a longer time, compromising the building, the grounds of which are based on "eternal" permafrost below.

But the biggest threat, if any, will be observed in the peripheral "island" zone of permafrost, which extends from the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk region in the European Arctic coast, and stretches south through parts of northern China and Mongolia, and also includes parts Kamchatka.

According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the southern border back down to 150-200 km to the northeast in the coming decades. "A few dozen kilometers" could be lost by mid-century in the Irkutsk region, near Khabarovsk, in the Komi Republic and Arkhangelsk region, as well as 100 to 150 kilometers in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia.

Different scenarios, the same problems

But all this does not completely, the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring in the report came to the conclusion that there may be at least four potential scenarios — ranging from the melting of the year 2020 to only partial melting by 2050.

All this makes the process difficult to predict, said Kirill Chistyakov, a researcher of the Russian Geographical Society and an expert on permafrost, St. Petersburg State University. This also complicates the task of responding.

The main danger in the frozen heart of the continuous zone, which covers the vast expanse of the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Chukotka, Magadan region, lies in the fact that the foundations of buildings can start to crack with increasing depth of melting in summer and decrease the carrying capacity of permafrost.

The threat of roads, railway lines and pipelines is much more significant in the South, where the start and island retreat intermittent permafrost. "Islands" of permafrost exist side by side with nepromerzshey land and permanent shift of the boundary between these layers cause abrupt changes in topography.

Experience brings solutions

However, this is not a particularly new processes, says Gregory.

Since 1960 Russian builders of roads and railways were engaged in that stabilized earth temperature by using a "vapor-liquid thermosyphons" — metal tubes filled with frozen carbon dioxide, which are inserted into the ground along roads and railway lines so that one end immersed in their permafrost below the active layer, and the other was in the air above him. Natural teploobomen reduces the temperature by between one to five degrees Celsius.

"Russian railways" is used in areas thermosyphons heavy snow in the north, but they say that is also recommended to build the drainage system to remove water from the melted snow thermokarst lakes.

This may explain the carelessness of companies like "Russian railways" or "Rosavtodor" — they are, after all, have to deal with these problems for years.

The difference is that the increasing pace of change will require a more proactive, preventive strategy.

2009 Greenpeace report on the social and economic impacts of climate change in the permafrost zone, sponsored by Grigoriev, recommends careful monitoring of the municipal authorities for the foundations of buildings in the north, so they either stabilized by thermosyphons, or at least were abandoned in time — to how to collapse. A call for a monitoring system for early warning about the threat of subsidence in respect of roads, railways and pipelines in the south.

But no strategy to deal with the proposed changes in the structure of the permafrost has not been made, either at the federal or regional level, at the time when the report was compiled, and for two years after its publication was also not any ads that could be indicative of improvement.

So how much it might cost?

"To be honest, we really do not know" — said Igor Podgorny from Greenpeace. "We just do not know how to appreciate such a huge change that will occur only after many years in the future."

Despite the warning forecasts MOE, we can only guess how much it can do this melting companies or authorities.

If the authorities and tried to estimate the likely economic effects of melting, their research is not made public.

Or "Russian railways" or "Rosavtodor" did not respond when they asked if they assessed the costs associated with mitigation of thawing permafrost.

Human factor

The immediate threat is not from long-term progress of soil degradation, and say Gregory and Chistyakov, a poor understanding of the need for proper behavior on the part of those who choose life for themselves in the area and who is building there.

"There are a lot of rules about how to build. Unfortunately, we have designs that are sometimes not properly constructed and used illiterate ", — he said.

"In some places, sewage goes directly into the ground, a building, or near them, including hot water, and even worse, the salt water. In areas where the temperature of the permafrost — minus one or even near zero, it can very quickly have a sharp effect ", — says Gregory.

"On the other hand, I can show you some of the Soviet-era structures that were built properly, and to this day stand and feel great," — said Chistyakov.

Roland Oliphant (Roland Oliphant)

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