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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Russia oil leak: What is permafrost, and why does its thawing pose risk to the world?

Beneath its surface, permafrost contains large quantities of organic leftover from thousands of years prior — dead remains of plants, animals, and microorganisms that froze before they could rot.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 19, 2020 10:04:26 pm
Russia oil leak: What is permafrost, and why does its thawing pose a risk to the world? An oil spill outside Norilsk, 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) northeast of Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 29, 2020. (Vasiliy Ryabinin via AP)

The principal reason that led to the recent 20,000-tonne oil leak at an Arctic region power plant in Russia that is now being recognised is the sinking of ground surface due to permafrost thaw.

The thermoelectric plant at Norilsk, 3,000 km northeast of Moscow, is built entirely on permafrost, whose weakening over the years due to climate change caused the pillars supporting a fuel tank at the plant to sink, leading to loss of containment on May 29.

Concerned by the incident, Russian officials on Friday ordered the inspection of “particularly hazardous sites” located in permafrost areas, the state-owned TASS news agency reported. “According to available data, the preliminary cause of containment loss by the diesel fuel tank was subsidence of soil and the concrete platform on it,” a spokesperson said.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is ground that remains completely frozen at 0 degrees Celsius or below for at least two years. It is defined solely based on temperature and duration. The permanently frozen ground, consisting of soil, sand, and rock held together by ice, is believed to have formed during glacial periods dating several millennia.

These grounds are known to be below 22 per cent of the land surface on Earth, mostly in polar zones and regions with high mountains. They are spread across 55 per cent of the landmass in Russia and Canada, 85 per cent in the US state of Alaska, and possibly the entirety of Antarctica. In northern Siberia, it forms a layer that is 1,500 m thick; 740 m in northern Alaska. At lower latitudes, permafrost is found at high altitude locations such as the Alps and the Tibetian plateau.

While permafrost itself is always frozen, the surface layer that covers it (called the “active layer”) need not be. In Canada and Russia, for example, colourful tundra vegetation carpet over permafrost for thousands of kilometres. Its thickness reduces progressively towards the south, and is affected by a number of other factors, including the Earth’s interior heat, snow and vegetation cover, presence of water bodies, and topography.

How climate change is eating away at these grounds

The Earth’s polar and high altitude regions — its principal permafrost reservoirs — are the most threatened by climate change. According to the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Arctic regions are warming twice as fast compared to the rest of the planet, its current rate of temperature change being the highest in 2,000 years. In 2016, Arctic permafrost temperatures were 3.5 degrees Celsius higher than at the beginning of the 20th century.

A study has shown that every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature can degrade up to 39 lakh square kilometre due to thawing. This degradation is expected to further aggravate as the climate gets warmer, putting at risk 40 per cent of the world’s permafrost towards the end of the century– causing disastrous effects.

Russia oil leak: What is permafrost, and why does its thawing pose a risk to the world? Russian authorities have charged Vyacheslav Starostin, the director of an Arctic power plant that leaked 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the ecologically fragile region on May 29, 2020, with violating environmental regulations. (Vasiliy Ryabinin via AP)

The threat to infrastructure

Thawing permafrost is also ominous for man-made structures overhead.

In May, when the Russian oil leak occurred, the Copernicus Climate Change Service recorded temperatures in Siberia at more than 10 degrees Celsius above average, and called them “highly anomalous” for the region where the power plant is located.

As temperatures rise, the binding ice in permafrost melts, making the ground unstable and leading to massive potholes, landslides, and floods. The sinking effect causes damage to key infrastructure such as roads, railway lines, buildings, power lines and pipelines that serve more than 3.5 crore people that live in permafrost regions. These changes also threaten the survival of indigenous people, as well as Arctic animals.

Soil subsidence is a major cause for concern in Siberia, where ground levels have collapsed by more than 85 metres in some parts. In Canada and Alaska, the costs of repairing public infrastructure are escalating. As per an Arctic Council report from 2017, melting ice would make infrastructure foundations unable to withstand loads that they were able to during the 1980s — a finding that has been corroborated by the owners of Russia’s oil leak site, who said after the incident that the fuel tank’s supporting pillars had held it in its place “for 30 years without difficulty”.

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A ticking time bomb

Beneath its surface, permafrost contains large quantities of organic leftover from thousands of years prior — dead remains of plants, animals, and microorganisms that got frozen before they could rot. It also holds a massive trove of pathogens.

When permafrost thaws, microbes start decomposing this carbon matter, releasing greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. Researchers have estimated that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in average temperature, permafrost grounds could release greenhouse gases to the tune of 4-6 years’ of emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas — becoming a major factor of climate change in themselves.

Along with greenhouse houses, these grounds could also release ancient bacteria and viruses into the atmosphere as they unfreeze. In 2016, a melted 75-year-old anthrax-infected reindeer carcass led to an outbreak of the disease, causing the death of a child and hospitalising 90 people.

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