Dmitry Streletsky: We need a permafrost monitoring system
© RIA Novosti. Vladimir Baranov

Dmitry Streletsky: We need a permafrost monitoring system

The permafrost has drastically changed over the past 20 years, buildings and infrastructure in the Arctic have begun to crumble, and Russia’s economic losses due to the thawing permafrost could reach $250 billion by 2050. Dmitry Streletsky, PhD in Climatology, expert in cryolithology and professor of geography and international affairs at George Washington University (US) spoke in an interview with RIA Novosti correspondent Natalya Paramonova about why there is still no permafrost monitoring system in the world, why the indigenous peoples of the North have nowhere else to store whale meat, how garages and stalls have destroyed permafrost, and why snow should be cleaned, taken away in polar cities.

— Dmitry, you often say that permafrost should not be described as "eternal" as in Soviet textbooks. Can you explain why it is not eternal?

— Permafrost is determined by a years-long process. If the soil temperature is below zero for two years, then it is considered permafrost. There is also seasonal freezing in Moscow, St. Petersburg or in New York. If the freezing that lasts more than a year, this frozen snow is called "permanent snow patch": it froze and then survived the summer.

It turns out to be a lexical collision. We are used to calling permafrost "eternal," but in fact it is a "years-long," process based on the definition.

— Is permafrost the same everywhere, like ice in the freezer?

— Permafrost is a temperature state. It can be a rock with a temperature below zero for two years, and there can be frozen soils such as sand and clay. Such soils contain ice, which, when thawed, turns into water. This influences the characteristics of the soil. Permafrost is very different.

We live in a new reality. Everyone understands that we are living in a new reality due to COVID-19, but not everyone understands that we live in a new reality due to climate change. We have a new Arctic. It has changed drastically even over the past 20 years. These changes have also influenced permafrost, but we are not ready to live in this reality, because we believed that permafrost didn't change in the same amount of time as a building is built. It was assumed that there would be temperature fluctuations, but on average everything would be fine. The main thing was to avoid violating anything technically, that is, like leaks that can melt permafrost.

But it turns out that permafrost temperature changes when the climate changes, so it is not enough to just monitor leaks. It is necessary to conduct constant temperature monitoring and visual examinations.

— But how is this done, at what depth, for example?

— The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and other scientific and semi-scientific institutions are now thinking about this.

It must be clarified that we are talking about monitoring permafrost in places without human interference, that is, in remote areas. Data from such sites will give us a background of the ongoing changes.

Roshydromet can monitor the permafrost. Now they can monitor at a depth of up to three meters, but it is necessary to increase the depth to ten meters.

— Am I right that monitoring should also be conducted in or near cities, because there is a very strong anthropogenic influence that can significantly change permafrost?

— Yes, and such monitoring used to be carried out in Norilsk, for instance. However, the problem is not in the measurement methodology — that's not difficult, the problem is who will be responsible for collecting and analyzing the information. For example, an organization wins a tender for monitoring the permafrost, works for five years, and then loses the next tender, takes the data and leaves. We need to consider how to maintain this data and how to make it publicly available.

In an urban environment, background changes are linked with changes in human activity. The anthropogenic impact on the permafrost varies from site to site, therefore we cannot monitor the city as a whole. That is, we need to monitor the permafrost near the corners of a building and perhaps, in the center of it. Sensors or loggers are installed that can automatically measure the temperature and transmit data even over a cellular connection. We will be able to see the temperature in real time. The dispatcher will have a warning light that will come on when critical points are exceeded.

I suggest that oil and gas companies use such a system. Theoretically, polar cities, which have only limited funds to create such a system, are of greater concern.

— I would say they try to frighten us with warming, but we aren't worried because the Arctic is far away and very few people live there. How can we get alarmed enough to do something, to spend money on monitoring, for example?

— When we talk about the pace of global warming, we mean average annual temperatures. Averages are hard to be afraid of. You are not concerned about your average temperature in a hospital, you are worried about a high temperature and if it continues to increase. It's the same kind of psychological phenomenon, but that doesn't make this indicator less significant.

Why should we worry and take action? There are temperature fluctuations both in Moscow and in the Arctic. But fewer people live in the Arctic, so no one complains about fluctuations. But in terms of permafrost, its condition is determined at a depth where seasonal fluctuations do not penetrate.

When we discuss the temperature of permafrost, it isn't possible to blame a temporary jump; so the temperature of permafrost is an indicator of global climate change.

— Still, it doesn't sound scary enough to motivate us to invest a lot of money in monitoring.

— Here's why it's still scary. The structural piles in buildings in the polar regions go 10-20 meters down into the permafrost, that is, the depth, where the permafrost is responding to climate change. We can't see the permafrost; there are some manifestations, but we certainly don't understand what is happening to it. From the surface we can see that ice has melted, the surface has settled, as has a road or a pipeline. This's what we can see.

Let's suppose there was permafrost at minus 5 at the depth of the piles, and over the past 20-30 years the temperature has increased to minus 2, but we don't see it, we can only measure it. What threatens such permafrost warming? There is a building on the permafrost, a foundation, and all this was engineered based on the permafrost bearing capacity at minus 5. When the permafrost became minus 2, its bearing capacity fell by half. That is, a very small change in permafrost temperature can lead to a very significant change in the load bearing capacity of a building foundation. This can only be controlled if the temperature of the permafrost is monitored.

In addition to temperature, it is necessary to monitor the composition of the permafrost. As I said, it can be rocky, and then its mechanical qualities do not change much, but it can be sand with ice, or ice with peat, or composites of these in different proportions. When a building is being built, the current soil composition is taken into account. No one suggests that the soil qualities will change. Everyone laughed that the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline was too expensive, but it turned out that they were right when they took into account the possibility of changes in the frozen soil. This is rarely done for cost reasons.

— I have heard that if building standards are not violated, there will be no problem. Both nature and permafrost will be safe. The climate is certainly changing, but still, major problems are caused by human activity.

— Even if everything is built perfectly and doesn't destroy either the landscape or the surface soils, the permafrost can still change. Some articles about the Canadian Arctic were recently published. There seems to be no destruction of the surface layer of mosses that preserve the permafrost, but scientists are still recording an increase in thawing. Climate warming worsens the permafrost.

We know how to build on permafrost, but now climate change must be taken into account. I would say there are no problems with new construction projects. There is an understanding of how the permafrost changes. There are some difficulties with facilities that were built 30 or 40 years ago, when permafrost was considered eternal.

— It seems like everything in the world is being monitored: air pollution, ambient temperature and other things, but permafrost is an exception?

— Permafrost is monitored everywhere one way or another. The problem is that there is no coordination. Basically, various groups of scientists monitor the background state of the permafrost, but there is no coordination at the country level.

Only Switzerland has state coordination. In Canada, for example, there is a geological service to watch the permafrost; in the US, there are universities with research projects that take measurements. But they are all uncoordinated.

Our idea, which we have been trying to promote for many years, is a worldwide permafrost monitoring system. There should be a single database and the ability to access it. Any scientist or head of housing and utilities in Norilsk should have access to it. Both need information about what is happening with the permafrost.

At the same time, cities should have their own services that monitor permafrost under each building: the perimeter and center.

If we want to understand what's happening with the climate, the Arctic and natural systems, then we need to measure changes. But it's hard to get to the Arctic physically, and it's expensive.

— How did the emergency in Norilsk influence people's mood? Is the idea of an unified permafrost monitoring network already in the air?

— We have been talking about this for many years, but there has been no significant response. The emergency in Norilsk seems to have had effect. Investors started to care about permafrost. When the measurements are important to them, they start asking questions. The idea of a permafrost monitoring network was promoted in 2015 by Dmitry Rogozin. The problem with permafrost is systemic, and it won't stop, it won't freeze back, just melt. Again, I don't know the causes of the accident in Norilsk, but it increased attention on permafrost and safety — that's true.

It looks like the situation with heavy rains in Moscow. Climate change has led to more rain falling over a shorter period of time. It's not possible to wait out this phenomenon, they need to change the drain system. With permafrost, we can't wait, either.

In Norilsk in the 1940-1950s, prisoners hollowed rocks and constructed buildings, everything looked like in St Petersburg, real Stalin's neoclassicism. The buildings are still in good condition because they were built on the rock, and the permafrost isn't a factor. But there was no more rock in the Khrushchev era, and so they built on icy sand and clay.

People began to build with piles, but piles are not always practical. These people received the Lenin Prize, and a street in Norilsk was named in their honor — Laureatov Street. Now, many buildings on Laureatov Street have been torn down since the foundations weren't reliable after the increases in permafrost temperature.

— Last year you wrote a scientific paper in which you estimated Russia's losses from the thawing permafrost. Which regions are most at risk?

— In Russia, 65 percent of the territory is located on permafrost. There is permafrost in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions, but the thawing is less dangerous for those regions. The economy there is based not only on enterprises but also on many ancient villages and towns that are not built on permafrost. In our research, we listed nine regions where literally everything is built on permafrost: roads, buildings, infrastructure and enterprises. These are the Nenets Autonomous Area, Komi, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Area, Krasnoyarsk Territory, Yakutia, Magadan Region, Chukotka and Kamchatka.

We took into account soil sediment during thawing and the loss of load bearing capacity due to permafrost warming. These two factors affect the condition of buildings and structures. We researched the best climate models and predicted changes in permafrost and related losses. But there may be more negative phenomena: high water on the river, bad weather or some extreme situations. We took into account only climate change. Monetary losses from permafrost degradation will reach $250 billion by the middle of the 21st century. We took into account the fact that buildings, roads and industrial infrastructure will be destroyed.

People can either reduce or increase the figures that we estimated. Monitoring and competent city management can reduce losses, while poor management will increase them. These numbers are averages; exact figures will depend on people.

Again, monetary losses are relative. The Sochi Olympics cost $55 billion; preventing $250 billion in losses could cost about the same. Now people are beginning to understand this a little. However, there are social benefits, and people spend money on them, because it's nice and understandable, but spending money on permafrost and adaptation is not such a popular measure.

— Are there any simple solutions for cities built on permafrost?

— There are simple engineering solutions; if a building is cracking or leaning, you can analyze whether it's worth maintaining or just demolishing it. If it's still worth saving, then engineering decisions need to be made to keep the structure. This is for buildings and facilities.

At the city level, there are very simple planning methods to manage the permafrost situation. There is one very simple solution — remove snow. Snow is like a blanket. If you have a lot of snow, then the ground is covered and the cold cannot penetrate the ground, in other words, the permafrost is not being maintained. But if these are the same places where you dump the snow, then the buildings will begin to deteriorate more quickly there. If utility services understand how to redistribute the snow, then this is 50 percent of the battle. We teach first-year students about this, but many mayors of polar cities do not know about it.

If there is no simple temperature monitoring that doesn't cost a lot, and then you notice the problem when a building begins to crack or a pipeline begins to leak. The urban environment consists of components: roads, utility lines and buildings. They communicate interactively with each other and influence the environment. If you do not understand how it changes, then any change in components can lead to a disaster.

For example, in the 1990s, private kiosks were built on permafrost in many cities. So you build a kiosk in Vorkuta or Yakutsk, you build it next to the road and sell cigarettes. It is cold in winter and quite cool in summer, and you bring in electricity and a heater. So your kiosk is warm and begins to melt the permafrost. When the kiosk sags, you move it, but at a point somewhere under it, the permafrost has melted. Private business in the 1990s greatly affected the permafrost layer. In many places, it never recovered. Even the best model cannot take such things into account, therefore, in each specific example, it is necessary to talk with the authorities about this. People liked to sit in a garage and repair a car with a heater on, and then everything melts under this garage, but everyone forgets about it 40 years later and builds a building on this spot.

— How much do forest fires affect permafrost? There were fires in Alaska and Siberia last year. Does permafrost thaw because of this?

— Yes, fires melt the permafrost, but they are more common in the taiga. This is a taiga problem, while many polar settlements are located in the tundra zone, although tundra can also burn. In Alaska, there have been very severe fires over the past few years, they melt the permafrost and the vegetation changes after the fire, and this also affects the permafrost.

— It sounds like permafrost is not just a problem for Russia. How are things going in Alaska?

— The attitude is different, of course, I mean the scale is different in Alaska. The largest settlement there has only 4,500 people. This is not Yakutsk or Norilsk, where 175,000 people live. This is a completely different infrastructure, buildings are small and they can be jacked up, if necessary. Completely different solutions, but they also have other problems with permafrost. The glaciers in which they store whale meat are melting.

They get a quota to kill 25 whales a year, and so they kill a whale. Can you imagine a whale? It's bigger than this room, and they catch and shared a pair of whales among the village. The whale cannot fit into any refrigerator. So there are about 70 glaciers where whalers have kept this meat in permafrost for as long as 300 years. A real refrigerator. The same thing in Russia, in the Soviet Union, a lot of them were built, for example, in Yamburg or Ust-Port. And the Nenets and the Yakuts also use them. Imagine that you have a freezer — minus 18 degrees, and it becomes minus 15, minus 12, minus 10, and then minus 4. The meat is still frozen, but already some bacteria, mold starts to grow. It is easy to jack up your house, but there are problems with food security.

Everyone has different problems with permafrost. In Russia the problem is the buildings, pipelines and infrastructure that start to come apart.

— Now Russia is starting to develop the Arctic territories. How can they be developed so as not to ruin the environment?

— Discussing sustainable development always turns into discussing sustainable growth, but there are already examples where cities disappear or shrink. Why don't we think about this?

Take Vorkuta — this is a city where coal was mined, the infrastructure there is designed for 300,000 people, and now 80,000 people live there. Coal is no longer needed, and the city has shrunk. The US has the same problem, everyone discusses the sustainable development of cities in the context of growth: more people and therefore bigger cities. And how should a city shrink stably? Flint, Detroit — they have to shrink, but it is unclear how to do it.