Rapid climate change is a problem for animals because they are unable to adapt quickly

The editorial office of the Arctic.ru website interviewed Alexei Kokorin, the head of WWF Russia’s Climate and Energy program, on the sidelines of the 9th International Forum, Arctic: Today and the Future. The discussion focused on the melting ice formations and the preservation of the Arctic’s rich natural resources.

Do you agree with the assertion that we are experiencing part of another cooling-warming cycle, and that the Arctic ice will soon stop melting so quickly?

I am merely repeating what specialists from Roshydromet institutes, the Main Geophysical Observatory and other research institutes say: It depends on the timelines used to assess this process.

If you take tens of thousands of years, then a new Ice Age, doubtless, looms ahead. If you take the 21st century, then this is certainly warming because the anthropogenic factor facilitating a more pronounced greenhouse effect is dominating. If you take certain years or even certain decades, then periods of relatively cooler weather are possible.

At the same time, we should realize that the situation with the ice is different in the eastern and western Arctic. Ice formations are melting at a breathtaking pace in the western Arctic, and their area will decrease even more; and, unimpeded navigation is almost possible even today. The situation in the eastern Arctic is different; the region has much more sea-ice formations, annual changes are more substantial and are bound to increase even further. So, the duration of so-called unimpeded navigation, that is, without icebreakers, will increase gradually and in a very unstable manner.

Lately the media has been reporting the discovery of new islands in the Arctic. Do you agree with the opinion that this is linked with active ice melting, rather than with geological processes?

You have correctly noted that this has nothing to do with geology. We are simply starting to see them. In the past, we could see an icy dome, and we believed that this glacier might be hiding a small island. When the glacier recedes today, we see that there are two islands under it. So, we have discovered a new island. Or we believed that a glacier fragment was floating in shallow waters, but this turned out to be an island.
This process is logical.

Both glaciers and permafrost layers are melting. What are the possible consequences of this, and which should we fear?

This is basically due to deeper summer thaws rather than melting. To put it simply, these layers thawed by 70 centimeters in the past; current thawing levels are 90 centimeters, and they will reach 110 centimeters in the future. At the same time, it all depends on specific earth and soil types. If the foundation rests on a cliff, then nothing terrible will happen because it will not melt away. But loosened earth is much worse, and the situation becomes even more dangerous if there are ice lenses in soil layers.

For example, one such lens is located 105 centimeters under the surface. As soon as the permafrost layer thaws down to this level, the entire section will melt, and this could cause a building to collapse. Then it is absolutely necessary to find out what is under the foundation of every building along its entire perimeter.

But each facility is unique in itself. For example, a gas pipeline is somewhat flexible. Motorways are much worse off. More roads are being built, and the straight sections can curve during thaws. We should understand that this is inevitable. They will have to be repaired. Roads will become more expensive to maintain, especially because winter roads and river crossings will endure for less time. Their service life is already declining fast, and this trend will become even more pronounced.

And it would be impossible to build railways there. You can see it. They have been repairing the Obskoye-Bovanenkovo railway for quite a while, and they are in no hurry to extend it to Sabetta. Understandably, this is a financial black hole. To me, the so-called Northern Latitudinal Railway project from Salekhard to the east is a very bad idea, and the initiators of this project have no idea of local developments.

There are plans to use a ground-freezing process in Tyumen. How successfully and how much can this technology be used?

A large concrete-slab based residential building in Nadym is lined with so-called thermal siphons or pipes sticking up from the ground along the entire perimeter.

Of course, it is possible to do this. The ground freezes deeper in winter thanks to this technology and therefore thaws less in summer. But this technology does not last forever; in effect, it will prove useful only when summer thaws and temperatures do not exceed certain levels. Of course, they do not change consistently. It depends on the number of so-called heat waves. They are already happening and are becoming more frequent. Experts at the Voyeikov Main Geophysical Observatory predict that they will increase substantially throughout the 21st century.

Freezing technologies will, of course, help gain time, maybe, even a few decades, but this will not last forever. Again, we need to seriously think about specific ground types where we want construction projects, or we should build with extremely deep piles that are sunk into something so solid that this layer will remain intact, regardless of any melting process. Or we should start hiring seasonal workers because, unlike brick or concrete structures, a light structure remains unaffected by anything. If this building leans a bit, it would be possible to straighten it out or move it elsewhere; nothing terrible will happen. It would be unwise and unprofitable to build cities in some places.

Do you think that most Arctic residents should become nomads?

We are talking about different segments of the population. The indigenous nations will stay where they are. It goes without saying that many of them leave for the cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and other countries. But this has been the trend for a long time, and it will not increase a lot. This population segment will basically live like it did in the past, although they are entitled to better medical and social support. We all know this, and it should not be doubted.

Regarding the urban population, we should think about whether we really need them there, and whether it would be more appropriate to hire seasonal workers. Of course, I am not talking about cities like Tyumen or Salekhard, but rather about the small towns north of them. Perhaps, this would be more reasonable. But we need to resolve this with the quality of people's lives in mind and the financial considerations. Seasonal workers are a reasonable alternative.

We have started talking about Arctic nature. Climate change and human presence impact nature, including the polar bear and reindeer populations. How can we preserve them?

Both species, polar bears and reindeer, are, of course, affected by climate change.

Speaking of polar bears… what is going on? Arctic ice formations recede to the north very quickly in the spring, that is, in June or even in July. Regarding Beluzhya Guba, the ice recedes into the northern section of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. Seals, the main item in a polar bear's diet, always follow the ice. The bears are simply unable to catch up, or they cannot adapt to this quick process.

To be frank, the speed of the process is a problem for any animals. Certainly, they can adapt to new conditions, but they are unable to quickly decide what to do next. It takes them generations to adapt, and we must help them while the generations move on. They will not live in unacceptable conditions, and their population should not decrease to genetically dangerous levels (they can decrease by two to three times but not ten-fold).

Bears lose their main source of food and wander into towns, and we know what happens next. In an effort to protect bears from humans and vice versa, WWF has been organizing Bear Patrol teams for over ten years. It is very simple: all you have to do is chase the bear away and remove more or less edible items from waste dumps. They eat everything, including 20-year old walrus carcasses that are even repulsive to dogs; but the bears will eat them, no matter what. This trend began on the Chukotka Peninsula, and it has now spread to the Nenets Autonomous Area and Novaya Zemlya.

What should we do? We are unable to change the climate. We can influence the climate, but it is a very slow global process. We can only eliminate other stresses, such as reducing the number of conflicts between bears and humans. Add to this patrols for removing edible items, and human behavior, so the bears learn that it is pointless to hunt these strange seals. It is impossible to catch and eat them, and they respond with other methods, except shooting. We are now testing sonic cannons to repel bears, and we hope this idea will work; it is important.

With respect to wild reindeer, they face another problem, that is, more frequent thaws that give way to subzero temperatures. Icy crust or even ice layers form as a result, and the reindeer are unable to find food sources or they cut their own feet. They can be helped by breaking the icy crust.

Here is another problem: rivers open up at an earlier date. Small reindeer are unable to cross them, and they perish in the icy water. What can we do? Should we ferry young reindeer across rivers? In principle, this has been done. But, most importantly, we need to eliminate poaching because wild reindeer suffer the most from climate change and from poaching. When we remove one factor, another remains. Nevertheless, we gain time, at least until the female reindeer start giving birth two months earlier (I am exaggerating, of course), and then they will be unaffected by climate change.