The Geopolitics of Permafrost

For Lithuanian exiles, the “land of permafrost” has become a metaphor for Soviet evil, associated with something very inhospitable, repulsive, and just hated. If we told those exiles that there comes a time when the permafros…

For Lithuanian exiles, the “land of permafrost” has become a metaphor for Soviet evil, associated with something very inhospitable, repulsive, and just hated. If we told those exiles that there comes a time when the permafrost must be protected and cherished, we would probably be misunderstood.
And the truth is that the climate is warming, not just Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting. Permafrost is also melting, and its melting is not just an ecological phenomenon – it is a geopolitical phenomenon, bringing new opportunities for some and very serious problems for others.
Some opportunities are not just visible, they are already being used. The freezing time of the seas outside the Arctic Circle is decreasing significantly. The so-called Northern Sea Route used to last only two months in some places, but now it is almost twice as long and the ice layer is thinner. The situation is similar in the North-West Passage between the Canadian islands. It is estimated that transportation of goods by northern seas is becoming cheaper and is beginning to compete seriously with the Suez Canal route. It is no coincidence that China is also showing an increasing appetite to become an “Arctic nation” by seeking unconventional “Silk Roads” to Europe. This would also be good business for Russia, as this transport corridor is located in its territorial waters. It is possible that climate warming up in Siberia will facilitate exploration and extraction of energy resources, so that some resources will become very close for China. There is also growing attention to the so-called security dimension of the Arctic, with the region becoming a potential battle field and more disputes arise over sharing of territorial waters. We can expect an inhospitable region to become quite bearable to live in.
However, everything is not that simple. Permafrost thaw can cause rather more trouble than good. And it certainly is thawing.
A research centre in Sweden Nordregio has produced several studies on the thermal state of permafrost and its changes.
Typical permafrost usually extends a couple of metres underground, and in some cases can be up to a kilometre thick. The largest territory of permafrost is located in Russia, it to some extent “covers” as much as 65%, or two-thirds, of the country. The permafrost zone covers about 80 per cent of Alaska, half of Canada, Greenland, Iceland and parts of Scandinavia. It is also present in Tibet and the Alps. And also in the Pyrenees.
The permafrost area is home to around 4 million people, compared to nearly 2 million in Russia, with important cities such as Surgut, Yakutsk and Norilsk-Vorkuta. The permafrost zone is not only home to cities, mines and oil and gas companies, but also to the Bilibino nuclear power plant, the radioactive materials repository in Novaya Zemlya and many other important sites.
As the climate warms, we are seeing a more ‘everyday’ phenomenon – permafrost is turning to slush – the solid mass that never goes away begins to soften. The effects are visible to the naked eye, with bumps and potholes, crumbling roads and railways, and swaying and collapsing houses. The surface of the ground changes its shape. It is true that it changes slightly every spring, but houses have never collapsed like that before. However, what we are seeing now is really worrying.
As far as Russia is concerned, there are no comprehensive studies on permafrost, but there is now a project in the Duma to set up a system to monitor the permafrost situation, which should really get the process moving in 3-4 years time. However, even without official monitoring, modest estimates put the losses due to melting frost at around 250 billion Euro by 2050 (equivalent to 5 years of our country’s GDP). And that’s if the situation remains unchanged, even though we see all the signs that it will change – for the worse. Thawing is already the cause of one in four technical accidents and accounts for about a third of losses in the extractive industries. The permafrost is retreating significantly, with summer temperatures rising to 30 degrees in some areas. Thawing is most likely to occur where forests have been cleared, as they no longer protect the surface from the sun, and Russia has plenty of deforested areas. Crater pits appear. Swamps and lakes form.
There are new “Michurins” talking about easier access to oil and gas, others talking about flowering gardens and longer time for northern navigation, and the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations is preparing… for a disaster. More water in the rivers, a greater risk of flooding, washing away of the coasts, everything that could go wrong has been foreseen. Roads and pipelines were built without foreseeing that the ground and the terrain could change so much. Pipelines can simply crack. The greatest threat is predicted for Chukotka, the Kolyma river basin, the Kara Sea coast and Western Siberia. The Baikal-Amur railway, once being so exalted by the Soviet system, has been a “perpetual repair” that has never paid off since it was first built, and now threatens to become non-functional at all.
We can say that these are technical risks, the effects of which can still be corrected by technical means. A railway or motorway can be rebuilt, albeit inexpensively. Far more serious are the biochemical consequences of thawing. Permafrost thawing becomes the world’s largest “producer” of so-called greenhouse gases. Paradoxically, a warming climate releases gases that make the climate even warmer.
These greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. And there is enough of it here to make it so that no amount of European green programmes and our environmental concerns will help. A conservative estimate is that Russian Siberia alone ‘produces’ about a quarter of the planet’s methane. Methane is the same natural gas, but it is flowing here uncontrolled and not into pipelines. The methane-laden waters of the Ob, the Lena and the Yenisei, and some wetlands are “boiling” because of the methane they release.
In its latest report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) of the United Nations predicts that the so-called Arctic region will “produce” around 10-16 billion tonnes of gas each year (in carbon dioxide equivalents, in real terms, about half of this is methane and half carbon dioxide). By comparison, human activity (anthropogenic factor) worldwide is estimated to produce about 48 billion. So the share of the Arctic is impressive, and we are not sure that we will be able to compensate for the Arctic’s emissions by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our own green countries.
While the Russian authorities are taking a hands-off approach to permafrost issues, local scientists are developing sometimes fantastic plans to preserve (or renew) Siberia. Dr Sergei Zimov, who lives in the town of Chersky in Yakutia, argues that Siberia was a steppe in the past, and that we can restore it now. Grasslands absorb carbon dioxide much better than trees, so more grassland is needed than forests (oh, what about that direct sunlight that thaws?). On 14 000 hectares of land, the scientist has created what he calls the Pleistocene Park, a small steppe that is home to many animals, including bisons. Sergei Zimov’s dream is to clone mammoths; we already have enough genetic material. (It is interesting that town is named after Jonas Cherski, a nobleman, traveller and scientist, and rebel of 1863 of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania).
These are projects of naturalists. What about geopolitics?
Well-known Russian political scientist Dmitry Trenin, has suggested that if Tsar Peter had had more foresight in the early 18th century, the capital should have been moved to the Pacific Ocean instead of the Baltic. Vladivostok would be much better than St Petersburg today. Then the war against Japan would have been won and China would have been less arrogant.
The essence of the Russian state is to control as much territory as possible. Russia controls Siberia, but has never conquered it. China, too, needs territory, especially territory with resources, and warming up Siberia is a tempting prospect. The confrontation between Russia and China in this region is therefore likely to intensify, and the outlook is more in China’s favour. For China, Siberia is close, for the Russians, it is on the far periphery. Both Russia and China are similar in their thinking, so it is likely that a compromise will be difficult.
In the long and murky series of relations between Russia and China, there will be no shortage of sequels. Although the territory of Siberia doesn’t seem to be so small… It is also true that Russia has known for more than two hundred years that it is the most resource-rich country in the world… but that doesn’t make an ordinary Russian rich.
At the beginning of the text, we mentioned that warming up of the Arctic is becoming a battle field. Territories that no one cared about before are becoming important, and maps of land and water are being redrawn. And there is no shortage of geometric curiosities. Boundary-drawing conventions usually say that a line perpendicular to the coastline divides the sea between two countries. It would be logical to assume that the lines should “converge” at the pole, but they don’t say so, and sometimes they… do not.
Those who are familiar with geopolitics will easily answer the question of why the former USSR and current Russian submarine bases are located on the Kola Peninsula. The reason is because it is the only route for Russian ships to sail out into the Atlantic Ocean without having to bother with the Baltic or Black Sea straits. The Barents Sea is already ice-free, but warming of the surrounding waters is also tempting the expansion of military infrastructure in the region.
In the far north, there’s the Franz Joseph Land – an archipelago of 85 islands discovered by Austro-Hungarian polar exploration enthusiasts a century and a half ago (hence comes the name). The archipelago was owned by Russia for many years, and that was that, without much benefit. But now there is a stir – a military base with an airport. The length of the runway (3,500 m) allows it to accommodate large transport planes (IL-76) and strategic bombers (Tu-95). So far, the base can accommodate up to 150 people, but this is only the beginning. Not so long ago, Vladimir Putin himself visited the base in the aforementioned IL-76 aircraft. So this is not a matter of chance. The archipelago of Russian military bases – from Murmansk to Chukotka – is growing considerably.
And the Arctic is increasingly mentioned in security policy debates. So the political climate there is warming up, too

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