Permafrost thaw cracks urban infrastructure, students dig in

Map from Igarka to Dudinka to Norilsk Russia.

The 2014 International Field School in Siberia this July studies the effects of permafrost thaw on Russian cities.


Students from Russia, U.S., Norway, Germany, Italy, China and U.K. arrived this week in Norilsk, Russia where they will spend two weeks in a field school to assess the effects of permafrost thaw on Russian urban infrastructure. 

The student researchers will conduct permafrost research in the field as well as meet with representatives of the Norilsk-Nickel mining company and of local production plants and geological, planning, social and migration services to form a science-based dialogue about problems and solutions. 

“A substantial population resides in permafrost regions, especially in Russia, and they see the impacts of thawing first-hand. They are at the frontier of those changes, so to speak,” field school instructor Dmitry Streletskiy told BarentsObserver. 

Approximately 24% of the exposed land surface in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, according to a United Nations Environment Program report. Permafrost, or perennially frozen ground, has been under intense recent study because of the rapid acceleration of permafrost thaw. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card notes that in 2013 record high permafrost temperatures were recorded in Alaska and Canada, and in 2012 active permafrost layer thickness in west Siberia was the greatest observed since 1996. 

Google Earth satellite image of Russia with the location of Norilsk marked.

Buildling Sustainability

Permafrost is an important factor in climate change because it contains large stores of methane and carbon dioxide, two major greenhouse gases that are released as layers of frozen ground thaw.

“More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means the climate will be even warmer, and more permafrost will thaw,” says Streletskiy. “The more the ground is warmed, the more methane is released and climate keeps warming,” a self-perpetuating cycle that does not bode well for the future if rapid thaw continues. 

But more concrete effects can be seen in urban city centers where buildings are constructed with foundations on pilings that are buried in permafrost. Ground that was once hard is softening as it warms. Urban buildings and their foundations are not designed to withstand the changes in the ground around them, so they fail. 

“People have built on what was hard solid, but what happens when that solid starts to thaw or sink?” says Gunnar Bjørnnson, a student from the Norwegian School of Economics studying the social and economic impacts of thaw this summer. “When you have an unstable foundation that starts to crack, it can break and destroy pipelines, sanitation, sewage, water access. It can cause a lot of complications, repair costs, and maintenance costs.” 

To better understand the behavior of the permafrost in which urban building foundations are anchored, Bjornnson and 14 student geographers, geologists and soil scientists have traveled from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, Igarka, Dudinka and finally arrived in Norilsk Monday for the remainder of the course. 

Ice wedge measurement during the 2013 field school. (Photo courtesy Kelsey Nyland.)

Along the way, they have studied wetland tundra landscapes, ground ice formations, cryogenic (low-temperature) processes and permafrost conditions as well as visited the abandoned Igarka lumber mill to study technogenic impacts on the permafrost and deformed structures at the facility. 

The July 2014 class is a collaboration between Moscow State University and George Washington University, and the Barents Institute joined this year with support from its Arctic Urban Sustainability project, “ArcSUS.” The project analyzes the sustainability of Russia’s urban Arctic cities and the impact of climate change on Arctic urban development. And permafrost studies are essential, says principal investigator and head of Barents Institute Aileen Espiritu.

“When you look at permafrost in cities in Arctic Russia, Alaska and Canada it’s clear that permafrost thaw is impacting everyday lives of Arctic residents…major populations are being affected by these kinds of climate change questions,” she says. 

Digging for Answers

Students in the field school are visiting two Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) sites at Norilsk and the Igarka Geocryological Laboratory where they will take measurements of the active permafrost layer. Active permafrost is the top layer that thaws each summer and re-freezes in the fall. A thicker active layer thawing each year can cause problems for the environment: trees that cycle over time from standing to leaning and standing upright again, or massive landslides and mudslides that occur in areas with mountain permafrost. 

The students will also try to determine if permafrost thaw is contributing to river discharge, which can increase the salinity, or salt content, of the oceans. They’ll also study demographic and migration patterns and the effects on populations. For example, the indigenous Yenet tribes who migrate from north to south in winter, travel over frozen ground and ice. When ice arrives later in the year, their migration patterns are changed, affecting the tribespeople and their reindeer herds. 

To accurately assess temperature changes and rates of thaw that vary from one place to another, a global network of permafrost measurements is needed. The Global Terrestrial Network on Permafrost created in the 1990s standardized measurements to make monitoring more effective. 

The GTN-P has two components: a system of measuring temperatures at various depths in 860 boreholes around the globe and another system for measuring the thickness of the active layer of permafrost at 260 sites. Measuring both the thermal state of permafrost in boreholes and the active layer in the field creates a combined database that allows scientists to monitor and assess the condition of the world’s permafrost. 

Students excavating an ice wedge during the 2013 field school. (Photo courtesy Kelsey Nyland.)

Students in the field school participate by taking measurements at two CALM sites, but they are also examining how human activity like construction and industry affect permafrost.

“We are interested in local and regional impacts,” Streletskiy says. “In centers of human activity, effects are more intense because humans modify vegetation cover that affects permafrost in the summer, and in winter they redistribute snow which serves as a thermal insulator for the permafrost below.” 

Norilsk, an industrial center built on permafrost with a population of almost 200,000 is a prime example for study. 

In Norilsk the students will study the landscape and changes in ecological conditions on the right bank of Norilsk River and the engineering of the auto-rail bridge across the river, visit several open-pit mines an d the world’s largest technogenic rock glacier, evaluate the northernmost avalanche protection structures in the world, study the foundations of buildings in the abandoned residential district of Oganer 5km east of Norilsk, monitor building deformations and learn about artificial freezing of soils with thermosiphons. 

While much of the course is geared toward geography and permafrost studies, the students will also dialogue with local leaders about engineering and mitigation techniques that can be used to protect permafrost from thawing and warming. 

“We look at engineering aspects, but we don’t tell an engineer how to build a house. Instead, we can teach them what are the methods to adapt this city, region, or even a particular building to natural and climatic conditions as they change,” Streletskiy says. “It helps to know how to consider climate and local natural conditions when they build on permafrost.” 

Google Earth satellite image of the city of Norilsk, Russia.

The International Permafrost Association created the field school in Siberia as part of the 2007 International Polar Year, along with other field schools such as the one just completed at the University Centre in Svalbard in June. The annual Siberian course in July has seen more than 100 students from Russia, China, US, Germany and France since its beginning. 

“The thawing itself complicates any society or industry that has built on permafrost,” 2014 student Gunnar Bjørnnson says. “…whether in Russia, Canada or Alaska.”