The melting of glaciers and ice caps may be the best-known effect of global warming, but this climate change has brought an additional headache to countries around the Arctic Circle, the region where temperatures are rising the most. the planet.
“We estimate that more than 40% of the foundations of buildings and structures in the permafrost zone show signs of deformation” due to the melting of the soil, said, in an email, the adviser to Alexander Kozlov, Russian minister of Natural resources.
Since this is Russia, a clarification of the scale is needed. Permafrost, or ground frozen at temperatures of zero degrees or below for more than two consecutive years, occupies perhaps 60% of the world’s largest country. During centuries of occupation, by indigenous peoples and later by imperial expansion, cities, roads and economic activities were based on the stability of the frozen ground and its flora and fauna.
The ministry’s concern, citing a study presented at the end of May by the Russian Academy of Sciences, relates mainly to the so-called continuous permafrost, in which the frozen layer, which includes giant ice wedges, is uninterrupted and can reach 1.5 km. depth.
Most of the roughly 2.5 million people of the Russian Arctic live there, half of the region’s total population – the rest are concentrated in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and some parts of other Nordic countries.
Yakutsk, known as the coldest city in the world with 300,000 inhabitants, is a candidate to simply disappear in a puddle of mud. This is a process estimated at 30 years, to be maintained at the current rate of the attempt to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Other areas, such as the ‘capital of the Arctic’, Murmansk (population 300,000), lie on discontinuous areas or sporadic permafrost, which makes impact assessment difficult as melting depends on other areas. geological features.
And it’s not just there. The Stockholm-based Nordregio International Center for Nordic Studies published in January its first work estimating the geographic distribution of the 4.9 million inhabitants of the so-called circumpolar region of Arctic permafrost.
According to the study, the number of people in the region living on permafrost will increase from 4.9 million to 1.7 million by 2050. Using current models, the forecast is that 534 of the 1,162 towns, cities and hamlets of the region will no longer be on frozen ground, with varying degrees of impact.
Of those who survive, say the six authors led by French geologist Justine Ramage, 42% will be in places considered high risk. The vast majority are in Russia, but there are big risks to various parts of Alaska and the city of Yellowknife in northern Canada.
According to the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Studies, 85% of the US state is under continuous permafrost, which also gives rise to large-scale natural hazards. There is even a word in the local Yu’pik language, “usteq”, which means “surface cave”, meaning the catastrophic collapse of the ground.
“Our main task is to prevent the consequences. For this, we are developing a system for monitoring permafrost degradation,” said the Russian ministry, specifying that the first phase of the program will be ready in 2024, and the second, larger, in 2035.
The point is, there is little to do. At an event in May, Kozlov estimated that reconstructions and population relocations could cost the country up to 5,000 billion rubles (around 350 billion reais) by 2050.
To complicate matters, much of the Arctic is a source of hydrocarbons, more or less clean, but still fossil fuels. The Russian economy’s dependence on oil and gas, which dominates its export industry, has led to further exploration, intensifying military and geopolitical disputes with other powers.
Paradoxically, the melting permafrost is also damaging the industry. According to an analysis by Sberbank, 30% of oil and gas losses in accidents in the region are caused by soil collapse.
This is not the only contradiction. Russians, Canadians and, most importantly, the Chinese have celebrated the opening of Arctic routes almost all year round – for Beijing, exporting via the North Pole would avoid reliance on threatened routes across the South China Sea and other disputed areas, such as Russia is an ally. Alaska faced a similar dilemma under Donald Trump, when the then president launched exploration in the region in 2017. In June, Joe Biden put the decision on hold, but he is under pressure to maintain his support for the region. Senate and may have to find a way out of consensus. .
These are questions that add drama to the long list of climate change impacts. The permafrost itself was already drawing attention to the risk that melting posed to the dynamics of warming itself. Since it contains thousands of years of frozen organic material, when the ground melts it gives off carbon dioxide and methane, the usual bad guys of trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to Nordregio, there is twice as much carbon trapped in permafrost than in the air.
This carbon bomb, as scientists called it a decade ago, still brings a cherry to fans of apocalyptic intrigue: the emergence of dormant viruses and bacteria.
Over the centuries, the surface layers of permafrost have always melted, giving life to the so-called active strip of soil, where plants are born, for example. But the deepest are a real freezer of disease. In 2016, on the Iamal gas exploration peninsula, an anthrax outbreak attracted attention. A reindeer carcass that has been dead for decades from the disease-causing bacteria, which rose to fame in envelopes shipped with white powder to US politicians in the aftermath of 9/11, has thawed.
About 2,000 reindeer were infected and a 12-year-old boy died, alarming scientists, already used to sometimes seeing ice age mammoths or rhinos growing from the ground.
So far, however, this chapter has not cemented itself from fiction – the children’s series “Sweet Tooth,” available on Netflix, chronicles an apocalypse apparently resulting from samples of permafrost ice with an unfathomable beast. Fiction in terms. In June, Russian scientists hit the headlines by bringing back to life microorganisms frozen for 24,000 years in Siberia, candidates for the ousting that the melting of the Arctic suggests.
In this tune, half “The Day After Tomorrow”, half zombie movie, the problem takes shape in real life. For Nordregio, action is necessary, because “3.3 million people live in agglomerations where permafrost will disappear in 2050”.