Install

Get the latest updates as we post them Ч right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Approaching Age of Mud

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Around the North Pole there is now a stretch of open sea where the ice cap has melted. Global warming is already making itself felt and is proceeding even more rapidly than previously expected. That is the gist of the latest research on the subject, summarized for us by the worldТs scientists in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released earlier this year.

Russia too is a bit warmer than it used to be. Or let us say Ч in deference to the Siberians freezing in unheated apartments Ч that Russia is a bit less cold. The year-round average temperature of the country has risen by more than 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1960s and now stands at minus 5 C. Russian winters especially have been less cold in recent years Ч up to 2.5 C less cold than in the late 1960s. The area under snow cover has contracted by about 10 percent since the 1970s. In places the permafrost has begun to thaw.

According to projections made by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, RussiaТs year-round average temperature may rise by as much as another 5 C by 2060, bringing it all the way up to the freezing point. Winter temperatures on the Arctic coast, now typically between minus 40 C and minus 10 C, may be 10 C higher in the 2050s. A substantial proportion of RussiaТs permafrost will thaw. Ice-free navigation will become possible in the northern seas, lakes and rivers, at least during the summer months.

Perhaps Russia could do with some warming. True, it isnТt exactly what is needed in the southern Russian steppe, where temperatures topped 35 C during the 1999 drought and which in some places (notably Kalmykia) is rapidly turning into desert. But surely the inhabitants of central, and especially of northern, Russia would appreciate the prospect of shorter and less harsh winters, together with longer and warmer summers?

Yes, conditions will become easier Ч in some ways and in some places. But not in all ways and not everywhere. As always, there are snags.

For example, warmer summers are not so good for the trees in RussiaТs forests. Warm weather brings out pests like the destructive spruce bark beetle, which emerges when the temperature reaches 10 C and multiplies faster and faster as it gets warmer.

But the biggest snag has to do with the thawing of the permafrost. Far from making life in the Far North more comfortable, this will turn the areas affected into an uninhabitable bog. The trouble is that when the ice in permafrost melts it produces up to twice as much water as the thawed soil is able to absorb. The result is the thick mixture of soil and water known to laymen as mud.

Those who live in the Far North know that their brief summer, which only just starts to thaw the permafrost, brings not only some welcome warmth, but also mud. The mud oozes everywhere. People try to keep it out of their houses, but they canТt.

The deep and prolonged thaw that global warming holds in store will generate oceans of mud. Plentiful rain and snow will ensure that it does not dry out for ages to come. (Northward expansion of the taiga will eventually help, but that may take a century or two.) The mud will flow in broad streams down slopes and accumulate in low-lying areas. Erosion and subsidence will lead to the formation of numerous new ponds and lakes.

The subsidence of coastal land, taken together with the rise in the global sea level brought about by the melting of the polar ice, means that much of RussiaТs northern seacoast will recede far inland. Many coastal, island and riverside settlements will be inundated. A prime candidate for submersion will be the geologically unstable Yamal Peninsula with its vast gas deposits.

All the residential, economic and transport structures that people have built in the tundra Ч the buildings, the mining installations, the oil and gas pipelines, the roads and airstrips Ч are laid straight on top of the permafrost. They have no deeper foundations or support. As the permafrost thaws, these structures will slide, buckle, topple over, collapse and finally sink forever into the mud. That will be the end of a permanent human presence in the Far North.

The indigenous people of the North will not be able to cope either. They too Ч and the reindeer on which they depend Ч need the permafrost.

Some analysts argue that technological solutions to these problems will be found. There are indeed ways of fortifying structures against the thaw. Pipelines can Ч at enormous expense Ч be reconstructed to make them less prone to break, leak or sink. New technologies may be developed in Canada and the United States, which face the same problem in their far northern territories. But I think that technological fixes will be effective only during the early phases of the process. Eventually the mud will win out. Homo sapiens is not a species that thrives in mud.

Some of the advantageous aspects of global warming appear less impressive when the problem of thawing permafrost is factored in. It is expected, for instance, that the northern sea route along RussiaТs north coast and through the Bering Strait, currently navigable only with costly icebreaker assistance, will be ice-free for up to 100 days a year by 2050. It may become a major international trade route, enabling ships to sail from European ports to the Far East in three weeksТ less time than via the Suez Canal. But what good will it do Russia? Russia can hardly use the Northern Sea route for its own exports and imports if its Arctic ports have been washed away and onshore industry and transport have collapsed. The route will be used mainly by other countries for their transit traffic.

Global warming is a reality. Even were the world community to agree on resolute counteraction Ч and such agreement, alas, still seems a long way off Ч it would take several decades to bring the process to a halt. We will be living Ч or dying Ч with the consequences for centuries.

What, then, is to be done?

In my opinion, the most sensible thing Ч for Canada and Alaska as well as for Russia Ч would be to accept the inevitable, to cut our losses, and to complete the evacuation of the Far North (already far advanced) in good time and at the minimum possible human and economic cost. Russia is a big country. There will continue to be large expanses between the thawing tundra and the advancing desert where global warming will prove more of a blessing than a curse. That is where the limited resources available for RussiaТs development should be concentrated. And if Russia is forced to become less dependent on the export of its oil, gas and mineral resources, that may also turn out to be, in a long-term perspective, a blessing in disguise.



Stephen D. Shenfield is an independent researcher based in Providence, Rhode Island. His latest book is "Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies and Movements." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.