Climate Change Is Accelerating Permafrost Thawing. And It’s Destroying Arctic Cities.
As climate change accelerates permafrost thawing, what can be done to maintain the resource-rich hubs Russia relies on?
Cracking and collapsing structures are a growing problem in cities like Norilsk—a nickel-producing centre of 177,000 people located 180 miles above the Arctic Circle—as climate change thaws the perennially frozen soil and increases precipitation. Valery Tereshkov, deputy head of the emergencies ministry in the Krasnoyarsk region, wrote in an article this year that almost 60 percent of all buildings in Norilsk have been deformed as a result of climate change shrinking the permafrost zone. Local engineers said more than 100 residential buildings, or one-tenth of the housing fund, have been vacated here due to damage from thawing permafrost.
Global warming has been tied to more frequent forest fires and flooding across Russia, but its impact on permafrost, which covers two-thirds of the country’s territory, is also beginning to be felt. At least seven giant craters have been discovered in Siberia—reportedly caused by thawing permafrost allowing methane to explode out of the ground—and a 12-year-old boy in Salekhard died from anthrax in August after thawing released bacteria.
Arctic islands and the northern coastline—and scientific outposts there—are disappearing into the sea as permafrost thaws, sea ice melts and wave action increases. Valery Grebenets of Moscow State University’s department of cryolithology and glaciology teaches his students 13 “horror stories” about thawing permafrost, including buckling roads and railways, soil runoff killing fish and the release of toxic and radioactive pollutants contained by frozen dams.
The problem also threatens Alaska, Canada and other northern territories, but only Russia has cities so far north.