In Digest, Russia

Published in TASS, Nov 9, 2015 Translation to English by New Cold

Melting Arctic (Valery Matytsyn, TASS)

Melting Arctic (Valery Matytsyn, TASS)

NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia – Because of the melting of permafrost and erosion of the shorelines of Russia’s northern seas, Russia is losing some 500 square kilometers of territory annually, approximately the size of the European state of Andorra. Stopping this process is impossible says Dmitry Drozdov, Acting Director of the Institute of Earth Cryosphere, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences. He is a doctor of geological and mineralogical sciences.

Why an eroding coast

Drozdov explains, “Each year, we are losing territory due to thawing permafrost in the coastal zone of northern seas equivalent in size to the territory of Andorra.”

Russia's permafrost (map by National Snow and Ice Data Center, Colorado)

Russia’s permafrost (map by National Snow and Ice Data Center, Colorado)

“Shorelines in the south, too, are encroaching, but in the north they are being washed away much faster”

How does this happen? Waves wash over permafrost soil at the shorelines, transferring heat and precipitating the thawing of the ground. In the south, when the coast is eroded, sand accumulations act to “protect” the shore from further erosion. “Here, there is a lot of ice, up to 80 per cent, in soils. When it melts it leaves nothing and the waves move on to the next section of soil.”

The scientist says the rate of destruction of the northern coastline varies in different places from one or two to tens of meters per year. It depends on many factors, including the nature of the coastline, stormy conditions at sea and on the age of the adjoining sea ice cover.

Strengthening the northern shorelines as is done with southern seas is useless, stresses Drozdov, because the thawing doesn’t stop. “This process is natural and inevitable. Remember the legends about Sannikov Land [a phantom Arctic island popularized in the 19th century]? Today, few would suggest trying to find it because its beaches would be washed away and it would sit under meters of water. 150 years ago, it could have been an island where people may lived.”

Where else is melting permafrost

Arctic permafrost (image by NASA's CARVE methane research program)

Arctic permafrost (image by NASA’s CARVE methane research program)

Permafrost in the Russian territory is divided into three zones –”islands” of permafrost melt, landscapes with pockets of melted permafrost, and solid ground. The boundaries between the zones of continuous and discontinuous permafrost liepass just north of Vorkuta and Salekhard, and south of Norilsk, Yakutsk and Anadyr. They are rapidly shifting to the north.

“At one of the sites of permafrost melt which our institution monitors, the border has moved 30 kilometers to the north in the past 40 years. That’s quite a lot,” he said.

Permafrost, he explained, begins to melt when heat accumulates at the surface in sufficient quantity to make significant change to the structure of the soil. Changing climate in recent decades has become a kind of “trigger” starting the process.

The consequences of permafrost thawing

Melting permafrost, explains Drozdov, will be accompanied by further warming, which will lead to new human activities on the territory. For example, with a climatic norm of one to two degrees warmer, the fertile lands of Stavropol and Krasnodar region will experience a shortage of water. Farmland will migrate north to the latitude of Voronezh (app 400 km south of Moscow).

“The Moscow region will begin to see more grasses. So it will become possible to raise cattle there.”

“The same applies to Western Siberia—the most favorable sites for agriculture will move 200 to 300 kilometers to the north.”

Another consequence of the melting of the permafrost is the contamination of groundwater, including the emergence of harmful bacteria in it, which is quite difficult to clean. Erosion of river banks will contribute to the contamination of water and an overall deterioration in the environment.

Read also:

Thawing permafrost could have catastrophic consequences, scientists warn, Public Radio International, June 24, 2015

Climate change writ very, very large: Impacts on the world’s largest landmass[Russia], published on See the Forest For The Trees (a blog devoted to ecological issues in Russia), Dec 16, 2013

Counting the Cost of Russia’s Melting Permafrost, by Roland Oliphant, The Moscow Times, Oct. 06 2011

Late Soviet ecology and the planetary crisis, by John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review, Volume 67, Issue 02, June 2015


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