How Permafrost Thaw Puts the Russian Arctic at Risk

A tiny chapel on the grounds of the Northeast Science Station near Chersky, Siberia, October 26, 2010. Scientists are studying methane gas locked inside Siberia's frozen soil and under its lakes. As the Earth has warmed, permafrost has thawed more rapidly, accelerating the release of methane and contributing further to climate change. (AP Photo/Arthur Max)

Permafrost covers around a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s territory, and over the past 30 years, the temperature of this frozen soil has risen by 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, causing permafrost layers to thaw. This warming presents a major challenge to Arctic communities and ecosystems, and has enormous potential to further amplify and accelerate climate change and its global impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in August 2021 listed “permafrost thaw” as a tipping point that could be reached within the next 50 years. In the permafrost-covered parts of Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, and Canada, estimates say there is as much as 1600 billion metric tons of carbon locked up. Rising global temperatures threaten to release this organic matter and transform it into carbon dioxide through oxidation. Such an injection into the atmosphere would “tip” an irreversible change in the global climate, as it takes millions of years for that much carbon to be “locked back” into the Earth. And once a tipping point is hit, it can have a cascade effect, accelerating other climatic thresholds.

Permafrost covers more than 60 percent of Russia’s territory, putting several large river ports and cities with over 100,000 inhabitants at risk. Siberia has experienced record-breaking temperatures—over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in June 2020, for the first time in recorded history. Devastating wildfires that recently hit the permafrost zones of northeast Siberia brought attention to permafrost’s potential to release carbon and methane and contribute to further warming. It also underscored the possibility that a thaw could activate more long-frozen deadly pathogens, as happened in 2016.

The Economic Cost of Thaw

According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia has as much as USD 250 billion worth of physical infrastructure at risk due to the thawing of permafrost. Its energy sector infrastructure―pipelines, pump stations, and extraction facilities―is of particular concern, owing not only to its economic importance but also the environmental risks associated with oil spills. It is estimated that 35,000 incidents take place annually in Western Siberia, 21 percent of which are linked to land and ground degradation. Last year’s oil spill in Norilsk, which is believed to have been linked to a permafrost thaw, contaminated an area of approximately 350 square kilometers. As permafrost melting accelerates, such accidents will become more common. There are also radioactive waste repositories and nuclear stations where permafrost thaw affects the bearing capacity of their structural foundations, which could increase the number of incidents that cause the release of hazardous substances.

By 2050, up to 45 percent of Russia’s Arctic hydrocarbon extraction fields could suffer severe damages, and several pipelines, namely the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline and gas pipelines from the Yamal-Nenets region, would be at considerable risk. In addition to hydrocarbons, permafrost thaw puts Moscow’s ambitious mining projects at risk, and may render abandoned mines—whose wastes are locked up in the frozen soil—a liability.

Permafrost degradation is also detrimental to the roads and rail tracks that cross frozen land, as well as airports, riverine and oceanic port facilities, and military installations built on permafrost. According to Russia’s Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov, more than 40 percent of infrastructure facilities and buildings have already suffered damage. The risk to military installations should not be understated, as their degradation could weaken Russia’s ability to protect its northern borders, ensure the safety of the Northern Sea Route, and exercise the perimeter defense of the Kola Peninsula, which is of strategic importance to Russian national security. According to Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow at Chatham House, Russian media claims that the military and dual-use installations along the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation are adapted to changing conditions are largely unproven.

Permafrost thaw also threatens to derail Russian agricultural security. Even though it is expected to open up millions of acres of land for potential arable farming, the land is often lopsided and difficult to manage, as well as acidic, thin, and unable to support cash crops (which rely on almost year-round usage). It is thus unclear how much agricultural benefit Russia can draw from Siberia. The bigger issue is that worsening climate change—which permafrost thaw will contribute to—is projected to cause increased droughts and more volatile wheat yield in Russia’s southern bread baskets.

Thawing is also causing limestone deposits to release methane, mercury, and radon into the surroundings. Mercury poisoning from water sources has been reported in permafrost regions; this release on a larger scale could have devastating consequences on Russian health security. Radon is considered the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

Measures Taken by Moscow

The issue of permafrost degradation had been absent from Russia’s official policy documents until May this year, when Moscow announced plans to establish a new nationwide monitoring system for permafrost, as well as to amend two federal laws. Part of Moscow’s vision is to set up a network of 140 stations in three years to study the permafrost. In addition, a laboratory for permafrost studies—the first of its kind in Russia—will open in the Yamal-Nenets region this year. However, the focus in Moscow remains on adaptation rather than mitigation strategies. 

Despite worsening Russia-West relations on other fronts, negative consequences of permafrost degradation bind Arctic states together. The Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum for Arctic affairs, constitutes an ideal venue where permafrost thaw could be addressed collaboratively. In May this year, Russia assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term. Environmental protection and climate change rank high on its chairmanship agenda, with particular emphasis being placed on collaborative research. During its chairmanship, Russia will have an opportunity to enhance scientific research and collaboration with other Arctic states, and to develop collective approaches to examining the effects of permafrost degradation on the region. As suggested by the Arctic Institute, closer interaction among weather observation services of individual Arctic states is needed, with the aim to eventually establish an effective global permafrost monitoring system.

The Kremlin has recognized that thawing permafrost can have devastating economic as well as environmental consequences. Although Moscow already pursues adaptation measures for the impacts of permafrost thaw, its emissions reduction targets lack ambition. This is a global concern, and a substantial reduction in emissions by all major polluters is needed if there is any hope of preserving permafrost areas and preventing tipping points from being crossed. In addition, improved data sharing and scientific collaboration among Arctic states, especially on engineering solutions, will help anticipate and manage the risks collaboratively. Although the science is alarming, meaningful action can help stem the tide of thawing and mitigate Moscow’s strategic concerns for the region. 

This article is part of a series reflecting on global climate action in the wake of COP26. A version of this article first appeared on the website of the Planetary Security Initiative (PSI). The authors are grateful to Louise van Schaik and Marisol Maddox for their comments and review of this article.

Katarina Kertysova is a Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network (ELN) and a Global Fellow at the Kennan and Polar Institutes of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. Akash Ramnath is a Junior Research Fellow with the Planetary Security Initiative (PSI) at the Clingendael Institute and is completing an Advanced Masters in IR & Diplomacy from Leiden University, the Netherlands.