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Permafrost in Siberia ceases to be eternal 

Lina Kolesnikova sounds a warning about the consequences of disappearing permafrost.
Permafrost covers 65 per cent of the Russian Federation’s territory; more than 15 million people live in this region. Now the frozen soil is actively melting, threatening all infrastructure – roads, pipelines, factories, residential buildings and communications. The country faces serious future spending to repair or rebuild infrastructure. 

The Arctic thaw will cost the Russian economy five trillion rubles until 2050, or 172 billion rubles a year, according to data cited by the Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Alexander Kozlov, at the IX Nevsky International Ecological Congress (Saint-Petersburg, May 2021). For comparison, the government will spend the same amount (172 billion) on repair and construction of roads in 2021-2024.

Some experts cite even more startling numbers. According to Professor Dmitry Streletsky (George Washington University) losses to Russia from the destruction of permafrost will amount to $250 billion or 18 trillion rubles by the middle of the century; and this figure was calculated only taking into account the direct consequences of the process on the national economy, such as the destruction of buildings and communications. Some experts claim that last year's ecological disaster near Norilsk – in which local rivers were flooded with up to 17,500 tonnes of diesel oil – was caused by climate warming, since the depressurisation of the fuel tank occurred owing to the melting of the permafrost on which it stood (author’s note: this theory is not supported by the entire expert community). 

According to scientists, warming is happening 2.8 times faster in Russia than the world average. The Runet (Russian-speaking internet) is already full of videos of buildings that are literally separating from the sinking soil in Yakutia (Republic of Sakha). Large areas are turning into swamps, which resemble giant bubbles. 

Another big issue is the movement of forest frontiers to the North. Forests will displace the tundra, which means the loss of significant biological diversity and, for the indigenous peoples of the North, the loss of the basis for their existence – reindeer pastures. Ecologists think that if tundra disappears then it would be impossible to restore it, even over a long-term period. It should also be borne in mind that if the climate warms further, forests in the North will displace the tundra and, in the South the forests will lose ground to the steppe. In the more populated southern part of Siberia, which is still forested, it is already quite dry. At higher temperatures, moisture will evaporate even faster, and the environment will become similar to the Mongolian steppes.

At the same time, this warming is pushing the ice boundary in the Arctic Ocean further and further northward and expanding the possibilities for navigation along the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast. Russia is pinning very high economic hopes on the development of this transport route between Europe and Asia.

Shrinking ice cover means new economic opportunities – fishing grounds, shipping routes and access to hidden oil and gas fields. But the degradation of permafrost zones leads to the extinction of entire species of plants and animals, including the already decreasing species of polar bears. Ice reflects sun rays, so if it disappears, temperature increases will be observed. The damage to climate and the environment is now never local – it is planetary and difficult to quantify.

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