Webinar on permafrost soil research in Kolyma Lowlands

Arctic.ru held a webinar on tundra permafrost soil research in Kolyma Lowlands, northern Yakutia. Alexei Lupachev, PhD in Biology, senior research fellow at the soil cryology laboratory, Institute of Physicochemical and Biological Problems of Soil Sciences, Russian Academy of Sciences (Puschino, Moscow Region) talked about research over the last 35 years on cryogenic soils in this area.

Alexei Lupachev's webinar featured a presentation and answers to questions from the audience.

You said that your laboratory carries out soil research of this kind in various regions (high mountain regions, the Antarctic). What is the difference between regions in terms of permafrost soils? Are there any striking differences?

Of course, as with any type of soil, there are major differences in permafrost soils depending on the region. It's well known that soils are influenced by a number of factors, such as climate, underlying rocks, biota, landscape and human activity. All these factors vary greatly from region to region.

What is the average capacity of the soil cover and can these soils be used to grow crops? For instance, you've said that onions grow in the tundra.

When we are talking about soil cover we are referring to space, while the term "soil profile" is about the penetration depth of soil-forming processes and migration of soil forming products. In northern Yakutia the soil profile depth ranges from 50 centimeters to 100-120 centimeters. Cultivating industrial crops is too risky in this environment and is an unreliable thing to do, although there have been isolated experiments with hay production and gardening. Wild onions can be found in this area, so for people there, it is not about planting them, but gathering them.

What are the practical applications of your research results?

It depends on what do you mean by application. In my opinion, the very fact we were able to grow a plant that is 32,000 years old has significant practical implications.

Where there any other interesting discoveries during your expeditions apart from the ground squirrel and its hole? Perhaps you found some mammoth remains?

To be honest, mammoth remains are fairly common in Lower Kolyma. It is not uncommon to stumble upon a bone when walking along a river. At a certain point we even thought of ordering T-shirts with the slogan, "We're not here for ivory!"

You've talked about cryopreservation and how you succeeded in growing a plant in your laboratory. Is there any possibility that these seeds could carry some ancient bacteria/virus that could be reanimated and start propagating? Is there any threat of this kind?

Many researchers, including from our laboratory, have proved that microorganisms that carry the germs of some diseases can survive without any problems in permafrost. Drilling of anthrax-infected burial sites proves just that. That said, perennially frozen rock, which is different from permafrost, melts every day, so all their living organisms wind up in the existing ecosystem. I haven't heard of any mass disease outbreaks among soil researchers working with permafrost deposits.