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And yet she is not eternal

The degradation of permafrost is gaining momentum and threatens with global risks, both to nature and the infrastructure built in this zone. The damage is already estimated in billions of rubles, but soon the bill will go to hundreds of billions.

Yakutia is a region in which global warming of the climate occurs faster and more noticeable than the average on the planet. Already, it has led to a change in the characteristics of permafrost and its degradation in many areas. Abnormal heat and prolonged forest fires this summer and autumn may spur permafrost melting, scientists warn.

And yet she is not eternal


Permafrost is spread over the territory of 22,8 million km2, occupying about 24% of the land in the northern hemisphere, including more than 60% of the territory of Russia. Permafrost is found not only in the Arctic and subarctic regions, but also beyond them in high mountainous regions with a cold climate.

According to the Institute of Permafrost Studies of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the warming observed in the Arctic in recent decades has led to a reduction in the permafrost area by 2-3% at its southern border, while there are areas in Yakutia where the ground temperature is dropping. “Permafrost recedes in different ways in different regions. We don't know our southern permafrost boundaries clearly. In general, permafrost occupies 65% of the territory of Russia. I believe that in the southern regions of the permafrost zone, it disappeared by 2-3% of the territory, no more. In large areas, the upper layer of summer thawing has increased, but the frozen stratum lies below, it has not disappeared, ”said Mikhail Zheleznyak, director of the PI Melnikov Permafrost Institute of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SB RAS).

“Once every three or four years there are winters when snow, which is a good heat insulator, falls much later. Low air temperatures, the absence or low thickness of the snow cover contribute to the cooling of the soil during this period, ”explained the researcher.

In addition, special areas were found in the Verkhoyansk region of Yakutia, where over the past eight years in the upper five-meter layer of the earth there has even been a decrease in temperature by two tenths of a degree. Moreover, this phenomenon was noted not at one point, but at ten different parts of the relief. This is recorded by automatic stations that determine the temperature four times a day and accumulate 1 measurements per year, Zheleznyak said.

According to the authorities of Yakutia, over the past two years, the number of wildfires in the northeastern part of Yakutia has increased fivefold, and the area covered by fire has increased sixfold. At the same time, the summer becomes hotter, the mode of precipitation changes. In Verkhoyansk this year, a record of +38 degrees above the Arctic Circle was recorded. Average annual temperatures rise due to winter temperatures. Winter is getting warmer. More water flows down than is absorbed into the soil.


Fires have an indirect effect on the permafrost - and not only short-term, explained Yuri Danilov, Ph.D. in Geography, Vice-Rector for Science and Innovation at the North-Eastern Federal University. The moss cover is a very good heat insulator, if it is destroyed, then the soil will warm up more strongly and the thawing depth will increase. The water formed during ice melting accumulates in depressions: starting from a small puddle, gradually exerting a warming effect.

According to research by researchers from the Permafrost Institute of the SB RAS, there is a buffer layer under the forests that protects the permafrost. And if the forest is gone, then the layer melts and is lost. Once the layer is lost, the irreversible process intensifies from year to year and leads to the formation of large hollows. If less cold has accumulated in winter, then in summer the earth will heat up faster and the thawing depth will increase.

According to Ivan Khristoforov, a leading researcher at the Permafrost Institute of the SB RAS, Candidate of Technical Sciences Ivan Khristoforov, in mid-June a forest fire broke out on the territory of the Shestakovka River basin near Yakutsk, completely destroying the vegetation cover, including moss. The day after the fire, a georadar survey was carried out along specially selected control profiles, which run both through the burnt forest and through the forest where there was no fire. The parameters of the thawing depth were fixed, the characteristics of the signals reflected from the boundary of the seasonally thawed layer (STL) were determined.

“In September, three months later, we repeated the survey along the same profiles and found that in the area where the ground fire took place, the STS border increased by 15%, and the amplitude of the reflected electromagnetic signal also increased. This indicates an increase in the total moisture content on the surface of the STS border, ”the scientist noted.


Based on the results of the research, the scientist recommends that all residents of cold regions, housing and communal services specialists clear the snow around their houses to ensure the stability of the foundations. “This will strengthen the foundation. The more cold energy enters the soil, the less intensively the seasonally thawed layer will move, ”Khristoforov emphasizes.

Adaptation to new conditions must be taken into account, first of all, when planning socio-economic development, construction of infrastructure facilities and the construction complex as a whole, says Oleg Anisimov, Doctor of Geography, Head of the Climate Change Research Department of the State Hydrological Institute. 

Permafrost degradation is already affecting the condition of apartment buildings, the functioning of roads and railways, airports, oil and gas pipelines, and industrial centers. During the July round table on the topic "Degradation of permafrost: problems and solutions", Minister of Housing and Utilities and Energy of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Dmitry Sadovnikov, cited the example of the accident in Norilsk, which showed what consequences neglect of regular monitoring of the eternal permafrost and its condition.

Then - at the end of May 2020, at the TPP-3 of the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (part of the Norilsk Nickel group) there was a leak of diesel fuel from the fuel storage tank. About 21 thousand tons of fuel got into the soil and rivers, the area of ​​contamination was 180 thousand square kilometers. Previously, the leak occurred due to damage to the base of the tank, the piles of which sagged due to the thawing of the permafrost. (later - in October 2020, President of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Sergeev confirmed that the natural destruction of permafrost could be a significant factor that led to the fuel spill in Norilsk - ed.).

“Quite recently, we felt the same at home: in the Srednekolymsky ulus, fuel also leaked from the tank of a diesel station. Diesel spill response measures were taken in a timely manner and serious contamination was avoided. But it's not just about ecology, thawing of soil leads to the destruction of residential buildings, ”explained Dmitry Sadovnikov.

As an example, the minister cited the collapse of apartment buildings in Yakutsk in 2010, 2011 and 2015, as well as the collapse of the balcony and part of the foundation of the Sberbank building. In June of this year, the foundations of yet another residential building collapsed, and a crack appeared along the load-bearing wall.  
The State Hydrological Institute estimates that about 70% of modern infrastructure is located in unstable permafrost regions. About three quarters of the population in the permafrost zone of the Northern Hemisphere could suffer from infrastructure damage associated with the degradation of permafrost by 2050. According to the UN, damage to buildings and infrastructure in Russia from increased permafrost thawing could exceed $ 100 billion by 2050.

According to Alexander Fedorov, a researcher at the Institute of Permafrost Studies of the SB RAS, a critically dangerous situation has developed in Yakutsk. “If the norms of construction and operation are observed, then everything will be fine. There are more dangerous places where underground ice occupies 90% and its melting is extremely dangerous, ”the expert said.

According to a poll conducted by the North-Eastern Federal University in 2017, 72% of respondents noted subsidence of the foundations of houses in the districts of Central Yakutia beyond the river. “Up to 40-50% of the arable land used before 1990 in the Churapchinsky and Tattinsky regions of the republic, located on high ice-rich soils, is now completely degraded and cannot be used,” added Alexander Fedorov.



Changes in permafrost will be manifested, first of all, in an increase in its temperature and the depth of seasonal thawing. The greatest danger here is the possible damage to the foundations of houses and structures on the permafrost due to a decrease in its bearing capacity. “Decision-makers and leaders of such regions need to focus on organizing monitoring of the condition of building foundations in order to timely detect their deformations and take measures to stabilize the foundations by installing additional piles or thermosyphons, and in cases where this is not possible, to stop operating houses ", - Anisimov is sure.

The main way of adapting linear structures to predicted changes is thermal stabilization of permafrost using various technical means and engineering solutions. These include the installation of vapor-liquid thermosyphons. “This rather simple device works on the principle of a heat pump,“ pumping cold ”from the atmospheric air into the upper layer of permafrost and lowering its temperature during the cold season. It does not consume energy and is a pipe closed at both ends, inside which there is a refrigerant, often liquefied carbon dioxide, ”the expert added.

An even simpler way of thermal stabilization is the installation of ventilation ducts in the embankments of linear structures. This provides not as effective as when installing a thermosyphon, but still noticeable cooling of the near-surface layer of the embankment, and also creates an interlayer that insulates the underlying layers from the surface that is well heated in the sun in summer. An analogue of point structures is the arrangement of ventilated basements and undergrounds, which are also widely used in urban development, Anisimov noted.

The chairman of the parliament of Yakutia, Pyotr Gogolev, agrees with him, who proposes to create a federal fund for information on the state of permafrost, to introduce a state examination, state monitoring of its state. “It is necessary to provide for the distribution of powers of federal, regional and municipal authorities,” Gogolev said.

The State Assembly of Yakutia several years ago prepared a draft federal law "On the rational use and protection of permafrost," and is actively discussing this problem at various federal sites. In the summer, the Chairman of the Parliament of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Pyotr Gogolev, instructed to intensify work with the State Duma regarding the consideration of the draft federal law on the protection of permafrost.

At the same time, in Yakutia, the regional law "On the protection of permafrost" was adopted back in 2018. For the first time at the legislative level, it defines the concept of “permafrost”. State administration is carried out by the Ministry of Ecology, Nature Management and Forestry of Yakutia and the Ministry of Architecture and Construction Complex of the republic.

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