Polyus Kholoda, Pole of Cold of the northern hemisphere, monument at the entrance of Verkhoyansk

Science and technology

 The Arctic is feverish and on fire, or at least parts of it are, and that's got scientists worried about what it means for the rest of the world.

The thermometer hit a record of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Russian Arctic town of Verkhoyansk on 20th of June, a temperature that would be a fever for a person but this is Siberia, known for being frozen. The World Meteorological Organization said that it's looking to verify the temperature reading, which would be unprecedented for the region north of the Arctic Circle.

Degradation of near-surface permafrost can pose a serious threat to the utilization of natural resources, and to the sustainable development of Arctic communities. 

Degradation of permafrost has already been related to damage to thousands of infrastructure components and negative ecosystem impacts across the Arctic. Detrimental effects on engineered structures, socio-economic activities, and natural systems can, therefore, all be expected throughout the permafrost domain under climate warming, particularly in high-risk areas with substantial urban and industrial centers such as Vorkuta and Novyi Urengoy in hot spots of infrastructure hazard in the Russian Arctic, writes Nature magazine.

Natural and anthropogenic systems in the Arctic are undergoing unprecedented changes, with permafrost thaw as one of the most striking impacts in the terrestrial cryosphere. In addition to the potential adverse effects on global climate, ecosystems, and human health, warming and thawing of near-surface permafrost may impair critical infrastructure. This could pose a serious threat to the utilization of natural resources, and to the sustainable development of Arctic communities. There is an urgent need for pan-Arctic geohazard mapping at high spatial resolution and an assessment of how changes in circumpolar permafrost conditions could affect infrastructure. 

Owing to the increasing economic and environmental relevance of the Arctic, it is of a vital importance to gain detailed knowledge about risk exposure in areas of current and future infrastructure.

A total of 69% of the pan-Arctic residential, transportation, and industrial infrastructure is located in areas with high potential for near-surface permafrost thaw by 2050. Consideration of ground properties in addition to permafrost thaw showed that 33% of infrastructure is located in areas where ground subsidence and loss of structural bearing capacity could severely damage the integrity of infrastructure. 

The threat to hydrocarbon extraction and transportation in the Russian Arctic has been given particular emphasis. 

Results indicate that reducing GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and stabilizing atmospheric concentrations, under a scenario consistent with the Paris Agreement, could stabilize risks to infrastructure after mid-century.

In contrast, higher GHG levels would probably result in continued detrimental climate change impacts on the built environment and economic activity in the Arctic. 

The heating record is part of a larger chain, according to Johan Kuylenstierna, natural geographer and vice chairman of the Swedish Climate Policy Council.

“It is very difficult to interpret individual events. Heating records are hit every year somewhere and a single record cannot prove climate change”, he tells Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

But, Kuylenstierna emphasizes, the important thing is to look at the trend over time: “It can then be noted that large parts of the Arctic have become 3 to 4 degrees warmer than it was in the late 1800s, just as Sweden has become 2 degrees warmer compared to the end of the 19th century. This also increases the risk of, for example, fires or extreme temperatures”.

The consequences of the rising temperatures in Siberia are several, according to Kuylenstierna. In the short term, it is the forest fires that are most frequent.

Another aspect is that there is a greater thawing of the permafrost, which would release methane gas and carbon dioxide, enhancing the greenhouse effect.

Russia's Norilsk Nickel , a major global nickel and palladium producer, plans to complete its own system for monitoring permafrost, buildings and structures after diesel fuel leaked from the fuel tank as a result of permafrost thawing.

“If you get more thawing of the permafrost, it can affect the infrastructure very much. Cities are affected and the soil becomes unstable. There is a risk that villages and towns will simply collapse, which will have a direct impact on people” he said.

A scientist cannot predict how quickly this will happen.

“It's very difficult to say, but to some extent we can already be there. Some of the consequences, the thawing permafrost, for example, may be something that happens over time. If you say you would not receive a further rise in temperature, it has already been raised 3-4 degrees which can have consequences many years ahead”, he added.



Image: Wikipedia