The Great Siberian Thaw | The New Yorker
One of the more outlandish proposals came from a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Gorodsky, who called for the positioning of an artificial dust ring – similar to Saturn’s rings – around the Earth, to create a thermal dome. above the poles which would increase temperatures to the point that the permafrost would disappear entirely. In the mid-1950s, Mikhail Kim, an engineer who had arrived in Norilsk as a prisoner of the Gulag, devised a more practical solution. His idea was to build on cement piles driven up to 40 feet into the permafrost. The piles would raise the foundation of a building, preventing it from warming the ground below and allowing cold air to penetrate deep into the ground. A construction boom in the Arctic followed.
Soviet engineers came to treat vechnaya merzlota like exactly that: eternal, stable, unchanging. “They thought they had conquered the permafrost,” said Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University. “You can build a five- or nine-story building on stilts and nothing happens. Everyone was happy. “But, continued Streletskiy,” this infrastructure was supposed to last thirty to fifty years, and no one could imagine that the climate would change so drastically during this period. “
In 2016, a regional official said 60% of buildings in Norilsk were compromised due to thawing permafrost. On May 29, 2020, a fuel storage tank owned by Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s largest mining companies, opened, dumping twenty-one thousand tons of diesel into nearby waterways and transforming the Ambarnaya River in metallic red. Company executives said the damage was contained. But Georgy Kavanosyan, a Moscow-based hydrogeologist who has a popular YouTube channel, traveled to Norilsk and took samples further north, from the Pyasina River, which flows into the Kara Sea. He found pollutant concentrations two and a half times higher than permitted levels, threatening fish stocks and ecosystems for thousands of kilometers.
The Kremlin could not ignore the scale of the disaster, which Greenpeace likened to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In February 2021, the state ordered Norilsk Nickel to pay a fine of $ 2 billion, the heaviest penalty for environmental damage in Russian history. The company said the piles supporting the reservoir broke when the permafrost thawed. An external scientific review revealed that these piles were improperly installed and that the soil temperature was not regularly monitored. In other words, human neglect had exacerbated the effects of climate change. “What happened in Norilsk was kind of a demonstration of the seriousness of the problem,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “But this is far from the only case. Many other accidents are happening on a smaller scale and will continue to happen. “
To get a feel for how thawing permafrost is changing the landscape, I walked out of Yakutsk with Nikolay Basharin, a 32-year-old researcher at the Permafrost Institute. Our destination was Usun-Kyuyol, the village where Basharin grew up, 120 kilometers away. His family, like many in Yakutia, had a cellar dug into the permafrost, where they stored meat, jam and lake ice, which they melted for drinking water. “You live on it all these years but never really fully understand it,” Basharin told me, explaining his decision to study the science of permafrost. We left at dawn to take the first ferry across the Lena River; Due to the ever-changing effects of permafrost on the soil structure, the construction of a bridge has so far proved impractical.
The region of the right bank of the Lena, a valley of about twenty thousand square miles, is known for its extensive deposits of yedoma, a type of permafrost that is particularly rich in ice. While some of the permafrost is almost entirely frozen ground, the yedoma contains up to eighty percent ice, forming solid, invisible wedges from the surface that can extend several stories underground. This is problematic for several reasons. Water is an efficient conductor of heat, absorbing atmospheric temperatures and warming the permafrost below. As the yedoma thaws, it can create depressions in the ground that fill with water, a process known as thermokarst.
Yedoma is also a highly absorbent carbon trap, accumulating organic matter in silt and sediment that at some point over tens of thousands of years froze underground. When thaws, it can release ten times more greenhouse gases than other types of sandier permafrost. Yedoma is found in parts of Alaska and Canada, but it is more widespread in northeastern Siberia; in Yakutia, it represents one tenth of the region’s territory.
Basharin and I walked past the accumulated remnants of the thawing yedoma. Some areas were the size of small ponds, others were actually lakes. We stopped at the edge of a large alas, a thermokarstic lake which dried up, becoming a kind of dug crater. Alas, it had probably taken more than five thousand years to form. Basharin told me that fragments of one hundred and fifty year old birch trees had recently been found at the bottom of an alas smaller nearby, suggesting that a process that once took thousands of years is now taking place in a little over a century. “In geological terms, it’s no more than a millisecond,” he said.
We continued to Usun-Kyuyol, where Basharin lived until the age of twelve. Cows grazed in front of wooden houses, their chimneys blowing dark billows of smoke. A stretch of road was pockmarked with oval mounds several feet high. Patches of yedoma had thawed, leaving craggy pits where the tops of the ice holds once stood. It all started, Basharin said, some 20 years ago, following a silkworm infestation in a nearby birch forest. The trees died, leaving the permafrost vulnerable to sunlight and rising temperatures. “At first people were happy – the next year was a good year for berries,” Basharin told me. But, as the permafrost melted, the road became so bumpy it was impassable, a mogul ski course turned horizontal. A number of houses cracked when the ground beneath them gave way. Some have remained abandoned.
We stopped by Basharin’s aunt and uncle, who invited us to lunch. “We watch TV, we hear about warming,” her uncle, Prokhor Makarov told me. “But we live in a village. Our main problem is making sure we have enough hay for the winter. Their home was not in imminent danger of collapse, but the land around it was steep and dotted with small gashes. The fence around their property had the stun quality of a person at the bar who got one too many. Makarov told me that in the summer he shovels dirt to keep things level. “We’re used to it,” he said.
After we left, Basharin said to me, “People don’t understand the end of this story. They are trying to adjust, he continued, “the thaw will get to them anyway.”
Three days later, I took a flight in a propeller plane leaving Yakutsk for Chersky, a town point on the Kolyma River, near the delta where it flows into the East Siberian Sea. In the 1930s, Chersky was a transit hub for the Gulag camps; it later served as a base for planes that carried Soviet explorers on Arctic expeditions. These days, at the end of summer, locals who have spent their vacation on the “mainland”, as they call it, return for the start of the school year, taking rare and expensive items with them to the extreme. northern Siberia. The plane was filled, not only with people, but also with trays of eggs, bouquets of flowers, and boxes of newly purchased televisions and blenders.
Upon arrival, I walked out of Chersky Airport – which is little more than a small waiting room – and saw a Land Rover parked on a dusty road. A man with a flowing silver beard and black beret sat at the wheel. I immediately recognized him as Sergey Zimov, who is sort of a permafrost diviner. “Come in,” he said.
We headed for the Northeast Science Station, its research center, on the outskirts of town. Sixty-six-year-old Zimov studied geophysics in Vladivostok and, in the later years of the Soviet Union, settled in Tchersky with his wife, Galina; a son, Nikita, was born soon after. The Soviet collapse is just one of many events, past and future, that Zimov claims to have predicted. “When you know the history of civilization, it’s very easy to make predictions, and so far I haven’t been wrong,” he told me. Over the next week, I heard Zimov talk about global demographic trends, Russian military logistics, and the gold standard. (“My rule is simple: if you get a dollar, use it to buy gold.”)
But it was Zimov’s ideas on permafrost that brought him scientific fame. In the early 1990s, he was among the first to make several related achievements: permafrost contains immense amounts of carbon; much of this carbon is released as methane by thermokarst lakes (the presence of water and the absence of oxygen produces methane, as opposed to carbon dioxide, which is released from the upper layers of the soil); and a significant portion of these emissions occur in the fall and winter, cold periods that arctic scientists previously considered unimportant from a climatic perspective.
In the spring of 2001, an American doctorate. A student named Katey Walter Anthony, who had met Zimov at a college meeting in Alaska, arrived in Chersky to help collect data on methane emissions. “When I first saw him in Alaska, I thought he looked so wild, with those big eyebrows and crazy eyes,” Walter Anthony told me. “But when I got to Chersky, I realized that although nothing about him had changed, in this setting he looked quite normal.”
Walter Anthony placed methane traps, which she had made from plastic sheeting, around the thermokarst lakes of Chersky. “Sergey had imagined these really great ideas,” she said. “But he had collected as much data as he thought he needed to prove his point, which was far less than Western scientists would like to see.” Walter Anthony returned the following year; this time it stayed until the fall and the onset of the first frosts.