Siberian re­gion fights to pre­serve per­mafrost

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YAKUTSK, Rus­sia — Ed­uard Ro­manov points to a spot on a block of flats where a ma­jor sup­port­ing beam has sagged and be­gun to crack, desta­bil­is­ing the nine storeys of apart­ments above.

In Rus­sia’s Siberian city of Yakutsk, one of the cold­est on Earth, climate change is caus­ing dan­ger­ous melt­ing of the frozen ground, or per­mafrost, on which the build­ings stand.

“Since the year be­fore last, the build­ing has started to list and has tilted about 40 cen­time­tres,” says Ro­manov, a con­struc­tion worker and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist.

“There is a dan­ger that it will tilt even more,” he says, as labour­ers per­form emer­gency weld­ing on the struc­ture, the tem­per­a­ture around mi­nus 35 de­grees Cel­sius.

Av­er­age tem­per­a­tures in Yakutsk have risen by 2.5 de­grees Cel­sius over the past decade, say sci­en­tists at the Mel­nikov Per­mafrost In­sti­tute lo­cated here, the world’s only such re­search cen­tre.

Most Soviet- era apart­ment blocks in Yakutsk are made of con­crete pan­els and stand on stilts to ven­ti­late the build­ing’s un­der­side and pre­vent it heat­ing the per­mafrost, a layer of soil ce­mented to­gether with water that is only sta­ble as long as it stays frozen.

Ris­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures can de­stroy the solid per­mafrost. As the ice melts, the clay or sand sim­ply sinks to­gether with what­ever is on top of it — a road, a build­ing, a lake or a layer of fer­tile “black earth” for agriculture.

Per­mafrost cov­ers al­most the whole of Yaku­tia — a north­east Siberian re­gion bor­der­ing the Arc­tic Ocean, an area five times the size of France.

In to­tal, around 65 per cent of Rus­sian ter­ri­tory is cov­ered by per­mafrost. With a pop­u­la­tion of about 300,000 Yakutsk is the world’s largest city built on per­mafrost, and it could be es­pe­cially in dan­ger from the melt­ing that Ro­manov and many res­i­dents fear.

Older build­ings were not con­structed with a warm­ing climate in mind. In the 1960s, the norm was to drive stilts six me­tres deep into the solid per­mafrost, which is no longer suf­fi­cient to­day as the sur­face warms, Ro­manov says.

Some build­ings in Yakutsk have al­ready had to be de­mol­ished while oth­ers are full of cracks.

“All of Yakutsk is in dan­ger. The own­ers face los­ing their prop­erty, and nobody is ready for this,” Ro­manov says.

“Th­ese prob­lems will mul­ti­ply in the fu­ture, so we need to start ad­dress­ing this to­day.”

As an Arc­tic coun­try, Rus­sia is warm­ing about two- and- a- half times faster than the rest of the world.

In Yakutsk, lo­cals say that two decades ago schools would be closed for weeks on end when tem­per­a­tures dropped to mi­nus 55 Cel­sius but such spells of ex­treme cold are now rare.

Rus­sia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­istry said in a re­port this year that de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of per­mafrost poses many risks to peo­ple and na­ture. It af­fects water, sewage and oil pipes as well as buried chem­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal and ra­dioac­tive sub­stances, the re­port said.

Melt­ing per­mafrost en­ables any pol­lu­tants to spread faster and more widely, seep­ing through pre­vi­ously solid ground, the re­port said.

Mikhail Grig­o­ryev, deputy di­rec­tor of the Per­mafrost In­sti­tute, says so far the warm­ing is “not crit­i­cal” lo­cally but could en­dan­ger the city if it con­tin­ues over decades.

He is most con­cerned about per­mafrost’s south­ern­most bound­ary, in ar­eas such as oil­rich western Siberia.

There, per­mafrost is not as cold, con­sis­tent or thick, and warm­ing can “lead to the de­for­ma­tion of build­ings, to dis­as­ters”.

“Noth­ing that was built on per­mafrost was built with the ex­pec­ta­tion that it would melt,” Grig­o­ryev says.

“We must pre­pare for the worst.”

In the Per­mafrost In­sti­tute’s un­der­ground labs — a net­work of ice­cov­ered tun­nels and rooms dug in the per­mafrost — sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers de­velop im­proved con­struc­tion tech­niques and ways to keep the ground frozen as the at­mos­phere warms.

One method that is al­ready avail­able in­volves bury­ing ver- tical metal tubes filled with a non- freez­ing agent like freon or kerosene in the ground with a part stick­ing out around or near a build­ing. In win­ter the agent con­denses in the cold at­mos­phere and drops be­low the ground sur­face to keep it cold.

Yet the tech­nol­ogy is costly and its use in con­struc­tion is not re­quired by the law, which has not adapted to the warm­ing climate, says a law­maker in Yaku­tia’s re­gional par­lia­ment, Vladimir Prokopyev.

Melt­ing per­mafrost ac­cel­er­ates ero­sion of Rus­sia’s Arc­tic coast, and Yaku­tia is los­ing about two me­tres of coast­line ev­ery year, he said.

The re­gion this year be­came the first in Rus­sia to pass a per­mafrost pro­tec­tion law and is lob­by­ing Moscow to take mea­sures on a na­tional level.

The law calls for the mon­i­tor­ing and pre­ven­tion of ir­re­versible loss of per­mafrost, but Prokopyev laments that Moscow has been hes­i­tant to treat it as a pri­or­ity.

“We need a na­tional law if we want to con­serve per­mafrost and pre­vent se­ri­ous harm to the en­vi­ron­ment of the Rus­sian North and Siberia,” he says.— AFP

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