What is permafrost?
Simply defined, permafrost is ground which remains at temperatures below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. Permafrost is considered ‘continuous’ when more than 90% of an area is underlain by permafrost; permafrost is defined as ‘discontinuous’ or ‘sporadic’ when percentages are lower. Permafrost occupies nearly 65% of the territory of the Russian Federation. Permafrost is a very common phenomenon east of the Ural Mountains; the extent in the European part of Russia is limited (35).
Changes in permafrost until now
The permafrost regions occupy about 25% of the Northern Hemisphere's terrestrial surface, and almost 65% of that of Russia (1,35). Warming, thawing, and degradation of permafrost have been observed in many locations in recent decades and are likely to accelerate in the future as a result of climatic change (1,35,43). The Western Russian Arctic is experiencing some of the highest rates of permafrost degradation globally. From the mid-1970s to 2018, mean annual air temperatures have increased at rates from 0.05 to 0.07 °C/year. Mean annual ground temperatures have increased from 0.03 to 0.06 °C/year at 10–12 m depth in the continuous permafrost zone. The permafrost table at all sites has lowered, up to 8 m in the discontinuous permafrost zone (43).
Areas of seasonal frost have shifted noticeably northward, and the area of isolated and sporadic pockets of frozen soil has decreased (2). Infrastructure and housing in Russian permafrost regions are affected by climate change. Permafrost degradation under global warming reduces the ability of frozen ground to carry loads imposed by structures (36). Moreover, the thawing of ice-rich sediments can result in ground subsidence and uneven surface deformations, which can further undermine the stability of engineered structures (37).
Northern Russia is warming at a rate 2.5 times faster than the global average (38). Permafrost temperature has increased by up to 2°C over the last 30-40 years, and at some sites by as much as 1°C over the last decade (39).
These rapidly changing climatic conditions were usually not fully considered in past engineering practices (40). Several studies have attributed the increase in reported infrastructure damage in the northern regions of Russia to climate-induced permafrost changes (41). More recent assessments have attributed a 5 to 20% decrease in bearing capacity of permafrost foundations in a number of Russian cities due to observed climatic changes (42).
Most recent research shows that Siberian permafrost temperatures rose considerably during the latter half of the 20th century, although the extent to which this can be attributed entirely to climate warming is currently unknown. Recent research revealed positive warming trends for all permafrost regions in response to positive trends in air temperature, with the strongest warming trend in regions of continuous permafrost. A slight cooling trend is found only for the topmost soil layers in regions of seasonally frozen ground at the southern margins of the region draining into the Arctic (5).
Temperatures in the colder permafrost of Russia have increased up to 3°C near the permafrost table and up to 1 to 2°C at depths of 10 to 20 m (20) since the late 1970s/early 1980s. Temperature increases have generally been less than 1°C in the warmer permafrost of the discontinuous permafrost zone of the polar regions (20). When the other conditions remain constant, active layer thickness is expected to increase in response to warming. Active layer thickness has increased by about 20 cm in the Russian Arctic between the early 1960s and 2000 (21).
Changes in permafrost in the 21st century
In 2012 the IPCC concluded that it is likely that there has been warming of permafrost in recent decades. There is high confidence that permafrost temperatures will continue to increase, and that there will be increases in active layer thickness and reductions in the area of permafrost in the Arctic and subarctic (19).
Changes of permafrost have important implications for natural systems, humans, and the economy of the northern lands. Model results indicate that between now and 2050 near-surface permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere may shrink by 15%-30%, leading to complete thawing of the frozen ground in the upper few meters, while elsewhere the depth of seasonal thawing may increase on average by 15%-25%, and by 50% or more in the northernmost locations (1).
Model results based on 5 climate scenarios indicate the total near-surface permafrost area in Russia may decrease by 11%, 18%, and 23% by 2030, 2050, and 2080, respectively. The projected contractions of the continuous near-surface permafrost zone for the same times are 18%, 29%, and 41%, respectively. According to the model results, the seasonal thaw depths will increase by more than 50% in the northernmost permafrost regions, including much of Siberia and the Far East; and by 30% to 50% in most other permafrost regions (5).
The southern permafrost boundary is expected to move northward in areas of its intense degradation in Western Siberia, by 30–80 km in the next 20–25 years and by 150–200 km by 2050 (6,17).
Permafrost degradation and ground settlement under 2 °C global warming
Global warming of 2°C above preindustrial levels has been considered to be the threshold that should not be exceeded to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. What will a 2°C rise of global mean temperature lead to with respect to the degradation of permafrost, covering 1/4 of the Northern Hemisphere? This was studied by estimating permafrost soil temperature increase under 2°C global warming with ten climate models (GCMs), and quantifying the resulting thaw and settlement of the soil (29).
Permafrost is defined as the ground where soil temperature remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years. Approximately 1/4 of the Northern Hemisphere land area is permafrost. Melting of permafrost under global warming will affect hydrology and water resources, because of the water that flows out of the melting soil (30). It will affect ecosystems, because the heating of the soil and its changing hydrology changes the biogeochemical cycles in the soil (31). It will affect human infrastructures, because the soil gets less stable and buildings, roads, oil and gas pipelines, etc., settle differently from one point to another (32). In fact, melting permafrost affects climate change itself, because of the release of carbon from the degrading soil (33).
According to these climate models, global warming of 2°C above preindustrial levels will be reached in the first half of the 22nd century (2037 / 2045 under the RCP4.5 / RCP8.5 scenario). Global warming at northern latitudes will exceed the global mean (34). When the global mean temperature rise reaches 2°C, air temperature in the permafrost region increases by at least 2.9-4.4°C and 3.0-4.1°C under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenario, respectively. As a result, the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost soil temperature will increase by 2.34-2.67°C at 6 m depth relative to the period 1990-2000 (29).
Under 2°C global warming the permafrost extent will obviously retreat north and decrease by about 25%. The thickness of the so-called active soil layer, the layer that thaws and freezes in turn, will increase by 0.42-0.45 m on average. Locally the increase may be much higher though, up to 5 metres. Ground settlement owing to permafrost thaw is estimated at 3.8-15 cm on average for the Northern Hemisphere permafrost land area, but may reach several metres locally (29).
Vulnerabilities - Infrastructure
Serious public concerns are associated with the effects that thawing permafrost may have on the infrastructure constructed on it. Climate-induced changes of permafrost properties are potentially detrimental to almost all structures in northern lands, and may render many of them unusable. Degradation of permafrost and ground settlement due to thermokarst may lead to dramatic distortions of terrain and to changes in hydrology and vegetation, and may lead ultimately to transformation of existing landforms (1).
Two major risks to buildings and infrastructure are associated with permafrost degradation: ground subsidence and bearing capacity. Ground subsidence is associated with the melting of spatially heterogeneous ground ice, accompanied by the consolidation of sediments under progressive thickening of the active layer. This process can be a major hazard for critical infrastructure (e.g. roads, railroads) and, as a result, can negatively impact the connectivity and accessibility of northern communities by land. The bearing capacity of foundations on permafrost is dependent on permafrost characteristics. Permafrost warming can reduce the ability of foundations to support buildings and structures, leading to deformations and ultimately structural failure (35).
The degradation of cryolite would lead to negative consequences for such branches of economy as ground construction (communal, industrial, linear, hydraulic engineering), gas industry, mining industry and underground excavations. But on the other hand, it would facilitate expansion of agriculture to the North (17).
High voltage power lines will be one of the many kinds of structures that will be susceptible to damage as upper soil layers thaw and re-freeze. One particularly vulnerable transmission system will be the lines serving the Bilibino nuclear power plant on the Arctic coast and running from the town of Chersk to Pevek (3).
More than 60% of Russia is underlain by permafrost and this includes large urban areas and large ports, numerous pipelines and oil and gas installations. Such areas are therefore at risk from damage associated with permafrost melting. An assessment of the amount of damage in cities was undertaken in 1992 and this showed that the percentage of damaged buildings was 10% in Norilsk, 22% in Tiksi, 35% in Dudinka and Dikson, 50% in Pevek and Amderma, 55% in Magadan, 60% in Chita, and 80% in Vorkuta. From 1990 to 1999 the rate of reported damage to buildings increased by 42% in Norilsk, 61% in Yakutsk, and 90% in Amderma (5).
Due to changes in rivers’ flow and ice regime the underwater sections of various technical constructions, e.g., pipe lines, will be threatened. As a result, different damages and accidents leading to oil outflows and gas emissions may become more frequent; this situation is especially threatening Russia’s northern regions where pipe lines are mainly located (7).
The impact of thawing permafrost on human settlements and their infrastructure has probably started already. For example, an excess of air temperature (in comparison with normal values) initiated the process of exfoliating and slipping down of soil layers in the Russian Arctic Yamal peninsula in 1989 (8). Arctic infrastructure faces increased risks of damage due to changes in the cryosphere, particularly the loss of permafrost and land-fast sea ice (22).
Permafrost degradation along the coast of the Kara Sea may lead to intensified coastal erosion, driving the coastline back by up to 2 to 4 m per year (23). Coastline retreat poses considerable risks for coastal population centres in Yamal and Taymyr and other littoral lowland areas.
The cost of permafrost degradation by the mid-21st century
Permafrost regions are important for Russia’s economy because of the extraction of several resources. For instance, within Russia, more than 15% of oil and 80% of gas production was concentrated in the Arctic regions in 2016. It is a major logistical challenge to connect these resource-rich but distant areas with the industrial and financial centers in the European parts of Russia. Over the last hundred years, complex transportation networks consisting of pipelines, airports, permanent and seasonal roads, local and federal railroads, river and oceanic ports have been developed to allow the flow of goods, services, and people between these isolated production centers and consumers in European Russia and abroad. The majority of these networks is located in or traverses through permafrost zones (35).
The cost of buildings and infrastructure affected by permafrost degradation by mid-21st century has been estimated for climate change projections based on six GCM climate models and a high-end scenario of climate change (the so-called RCP 8.5 scenario). The period 2006-2015 was chosen as the present reference situation. The chosen scenario gives the upper limit of potential costs (35).
The widespread impacts of climate-induced permafrost changes are expected to have a pronounced negative effect on infrastructure throughout the Russian permafrost region by the mid-21st century. The Russian economy strongly depends on the extraction and transportation of mineral resources from the northern and eastern parts of the country affected by the presence of permafrost. Permafrost regions have less than 4% of total Russian population, but account for almost 17% of total Russian cost of fixed assets. These estimates highlight the importance of permafrost in the Russian economy (35).
According to this assessment, the total value of fixed assets that are directly affected by permafrost is almost 250 bln USD, which is roughly 7.5% of Russian GDP for the year 2016. Under the RCP8.5 scenario, climate-induced changes in permafrost conditions (e.g. permafrost temperature and the active-layer thickness) are expected to result in substantial decrease of bearing capacity and, in regions with ice-rich permafrost, increase in differential ground subsidence. By the mid-21st century, 20% of commercial and industrial structures and 19% of critical infrastructure with a total cost of 84.4 bln USD will be negatively affected by climate-induced permafrost changes. Besides, 54% of residential real estate on permafrost, representing 20.7 bln USD, will be affected (35).
The total expected damage of permafrost degradation to the residential and industrial infrastructure in the Russian Arctic in 2050 is about USD 70–100 billion, and it may reach up to USD 132 billion (total) and ~ USD 15 billion for residential infrastructure alone (46).
Such high percentage of vulnerable infrastructure can negatively impact the economy of the Russian permafrost regions. The financial burden associated with the mitigation of negative impacts related to permafrost degradation varies from less than 0.1% to >3% of a region’s Gross Regional Product (35).
Vulnerabilities – The permafrost carbon feedback
In high-latitude regions of the Earth, temperatures have risen 0.6 °C per decade, twice as fast as the global average (27). The resulting thaw of frozen ground exposes substantial quantities of organic carbon to decomposition by soil microbes (26). The permafrost region contains twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere (28). A substantial fraction of this material can be mineralized by microbes and converted to CO2 and CH4 on timescales of years to decades. At the proposed rates, the observed and projected emissions of CH4 and CO2 from thawing permafrost are unlikely to cause abrupt climate change over a period of a few years to a decade. Instead, permafrost carbon emissions are likely to be felt over decades to centuries as northern regions warm, making climate change happen faster than we would expect on the basis of projected emissions from human activities alone (26).
Increases in fire extent, severity, and frequency with continued climate warming will also impact vegetation and permafrost dynamics with increased likelihood of irreversible permafrost thaw that leads to increased carbon release and/or conversion of forest to shrublands (44).
Abrupt permafrost thaw occurs when warming melts ground ice, causing the land surface to collapse into the volume previously occupied by ice. This process, called thermokarst, alters surface hydrology. Water is attracted towards collapse areas, and pooling or flowing water in turn causes more localized thawing and even mass erosion. Owing to these localized feedbacks that can thaw through tens of metres of permafrost across a hillslope within only a few years, permafrost thaw occurs much more rapidly than would be predicted from changes in air temperature alone. Abrupt thaw is an important mechanism of rapid permafrost degradation, yet abrupt thaw is not included in large-scale models, suggesting that important landscape transformations are not currently being considered in forecasts of permafrost carbon–climate feedbacks. This is in part due to the fact that we do not know at this stage what the relative importance of abrupt to gradual thaw across the landscape is likely to be (26).
In August 2005 Russian and UK scientists reported that an area of permafrost in western Siberia the size of France and Germany combined was melting. Trapped in the permafrost are an estimated 70,000 million tonnes of methane – which has the equivalent warming potential of 70 times the world’s current total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Should a significant quantity of this be released, it could represent one of the “tipping points” climate scientists warn about – massive changes in the process of global warming that are not usually included in standard models (15).
It is suggested that the largest relative increase of methane emission is expected along the Arctic coast, in Central Siberia and Yakutia and this will be up to 50% by mid-century. In West Siberia where most of the wetlands are located, research argues that the future flux changes will be below 20%, and therefore increases in mid-century methane emissions from Russia will be around 25%–30%. This will increase atmospheric methane concentrations, with a subsequent enhancement of radiative forcing (4).
The soil carbon pool in permafrost regions may be substantial since cold temperatures at high latitudes inhibit decomposition of dead vegetation. Estimates are uncertain, ranging from 60 to 190 Pg of carbon frozen in arctic tundra soils alone with 20–60% of global soil carbon stores thought to be in soils of boreal forests and northward. As permafrost thaws, this soil carbon pool may become active leading to enhanced emission of greenhouse gases such as methane, if the melting forms new wetlands, or carbon dioxide, if the melting permits soils to dry out (9).
A 22–66% increase in methane emission has been observed after permafrost thawed at Stordalen mire in Sweden (10). Others report a 10-fold increase in carbon dioxide efflux upon soil thawing in a boreal forest (11).
It has also been reported, however, that in the 21st century the expected increase in emissions of methane from wetlands of Russian permafrost regions will not have any impact on the global climate (6).
Vulnerabilities – Albedo change
Another potential feedback of thawing permafrost relates to changes in vegetation distribution. Shrubs and boreal forests may extent northward, resulting in a further positive climate feedback due to lower albedos over shrubs and forests compared to tundra grasses and moss (16).
Vulnerabilities – Impact on river runoff
Permafrost degradation impacts Arctic hydrology. Over the 30-year period from 1984 to 2013 warming-induced permafrost degradation has led to strong regime shifts in river runoff in river basins in southern Siberia. This shift can go in different directions, depending on the extent of permafrost. In a basin characterized by discontinuous, sporadic, and isolated permafrost, permafrost degradation has led to severe water loss via the enhanced infiltration of water that was previously stored close to the surface; this basin exhibits a significant decreasing trend of runoff. In basin where the thickened active layer is still underlain by a frozen layer, the low permeability sustains water-rich surface conditions; this basin exhibits a significant increasing trend of runoff (45).
Over the past 70 years, runoff to the Arctic Ocean has increased by an estimated 7% (12). Change in the amount of freshwater reaching the Arctic Ocean affects sea-ice formation and may alter the oceanic thermohaline circulation (13). Model results indicate that discharge grows by a further 28% by 2100, mostly due to increases in precipitation that exceed increases in evaporation, although 15% of the increase is attributed to contributions from thawing permafrost (14).
Introduction of global warming considerations in construction projections would lead to an increase of depth of piles for basement location and the depth of pre-building ground thawing. The choice of building approaches should also be made taking into account long-term projections of ground temperature regime (17).
Adaptation measures for present construction include (17):
- geological and engineering monitoring of thermal properties of ground of basements and sites of construction, and
- protection of basements of buildings by the use of additional options for temperature lowering.
The oil and gas industry has much experience in working in harsh conditions and there are many examples of innovative technical solutions to adapt to challenging environments. For example, Alaska faces similar concerns to Arctic and Siberian Russia but has demonstrated increased resilience to changing climate (18):
- Construction standards have been adapted to reflect changing conditions and to reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure to melting permafrost, e.g. deeper pilings are used, air is allowed to circulate beneath buildings, thicker insulation is employed, and facilities are located on gravel pads or other insulated materials. Buildings and infrastructure are generally lighter weight and subject to regular repair and maintenance programs.
- The Trans‐Alaska Oil Pipeline is an example of good adaption. Here a range of measures are employed to increase resilience including elevating the pipeline above ground level in areas of excess ice; using vertical supports with heat pipes to cool permafrost in winter, lower the mean ground temperature and prevent thaw in summer; and burying sections of the pipeline with thick insulation and refrigeration.
The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and its National Permafrost Working Group developed a Technical Guide, CSA Plus 4011-10, on Infrastructure in Permafrost: A Guideline for Climate Change Adaptation, that directly incorporated climate change temperature projections from an ensemble of climate change models. This CSA Guide considered climate change projections of temperature and precipitation and incorporated risks from warming and thawing permafrost to foundations over the planned life spans of the structure (24). The guide suggested possible adaptation options, taking into account the varying levels of risks and the consequences of failure for foundations of structures, whether buildings, water treatment plants, towers, tank farms, tailings ponds, or other infrastructure (25).
The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Russia.
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- Russian Federation, Interagency Commission of the Russian Federation on Climate Change (2002)
- US Arctic Research Commission (2003), in: Ebinger et al. (2008)
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- IPCC (2013), in: Schuur et al. (2015)
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- Guo and Wang (2017)
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