Foreword: There is little debate today that the climate is indeed changing. We can argue about the causes of it and the “contribution” of mankind, but from a practical point of view, something else is much more interesting. How will climate change affect Russia? There are many conflicting opinions on this score. In this feature, ESG GAZETA examines which of these opinions are true and which are common misconceptions.
Is the average annual temperature in Russia rising much faster than in Europe and the United States?
Yes, it is. Since the mid-1970s, the average annual air temperature in our country has been rising 2.8 times faster than the global average, and in the Russian Arctic the warming is even faster, exceeding the global rate by 3.9 times.
The main reason for the accelerated warming in the Arctic is the so-called “albedo effect” of sea ice. Covered with white snow, it reflects the sun’s rays better than dark water exposed by melting ice. The greater the exposed surface area of water, the faster it heats up, accelerating the melting of ice and snow. And since Russia has the largest territories in the Arctic and the longest high-latitude coastline, our rate of climate change is higher than the global average.
In addition, up to 65% of Russia’s territory is covered by permafrost, which stores significant amounts of carbon and methane. Released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws, these greenhouse gases further accelerate the rise in temperature. According to Russian scientists’ calculations, which were used as a basis for the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan, the increase in air temperature in our country could reach 2–3.3 degrees Celsius by the middle of this century and up to 7.5 degrees by the end of the century.
Will the Northern Sea Route become more important as the Arctic ice caps shrink?
Things are not that simple. According to 90% of climate simulations, warm season sea ice on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) will disappear by the end of the 21st century. And some experts are convinced that by 2050 the Arctic seas will be covered with ice only in winter. In any case, year-round navigation through the NSR (albeit with icebreaker support) is expected to open even sooner, within the next few years.
“The extension of the navigation season in the northern seas is a good thing, but the development of the NSR requires the creation of modern port and coastal infrastructure, navigation and rescue services,” says Alexander Vorotnikov, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Administration and Public Policy at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Deputy Director General of the Project Office for Arctic Development (PORA).
In addition, it should be noted that cargo traffic along the NSR will depend on the pace of implementation of projects in the Arctic and on the export volumes. In other words, the extension of the navigation period opens up an opportunity for the rapid development of the transport corridor, but people must create the conditions for this to happen.
Will buildings and structures built on permafrost lose their footing and collapse?
Such a threat does exist. But only if we ignore the problem. Permafrost, now increasingly referred to as perennial rather than permanent, is breaking up. But it breaks differently in different places.
“The permafrost is changing. It always has and it always will. Climate change is a different thing. Permafrost reacts differently to climate change. There are places where the melting process is faster, and there are places where permafrost remains stable,” explains Mikhail Zheleznyak, director of the world’s only Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk. “In the Western Arctic, permafrost degradation is more intense than in the Eastern Arctic,” the scientist notes.
There are cities, engineering infrastructure, railways, roads, airports, and pipelines built on permafrost. And ignoring the soil’s carrying capacity can lead to serious disasters.
Experts estimate that by 2050, the total damage caused by melting soils could amount to at least five trillion rubles. To better manage the risks, Russia is creating the world’s first permafrost monitoring system. It will rely on the existing monitoring network of the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring and will include one hundred and forty monitoring stations. Experts also emphasize the need to actively introduce innovative construction methods and use materials with a longer service life.
In fact, Russia is an expert at building unique structures on permafrost that have no analogues anywhere else in the world. For example, the longest bridge in the Arctic was built in Yamal more than a decade ago. It crosses the delta, not the bed, of the Yuribey River and rests on high piles made of 1.2–2.4 meter diameter pipes drilled 20–40 meters into the permafrost and filled with reinforced concrete. It is supposed to last a hundred years.
Will global warming expand Russia’s arable land?
No, dreams of harvesting grain on the shores of the Laptev Sea will remain dreams. The permafrost will shift northward, but the soil will remain barren and waterlogged due to melting ice deposits in the ground.
“We need to remember that the crops grown today are adapted to their natural zones. Moreover, fertilizers and intensified farming can dramatically harm the fragile northern ecosystems,” warns Alexander Vorotnikov of the Project Office for Arctic Development (PORA).
Global warming will aggravate the situation in the southern regions of our country. It is quite possible that some of them will lose their status as agricultural powerhouses. Irrigation systems will have to be created, new drought-resistant crops will have to be developed, and all of this will require significant investment in the agricultural sector.
Will Russian winters become milder, resulting in a shorter heating season and lower costs?
Unfortunately, costs will not go down. The heating season will be shorter and heating costs will be lower. But at the same time, the cost of air conditioning will increase. In addition, climate change will increase the number of natural disasters: floods, heavy precipitation, including tropical and freezing rain, floods, storms, tornadoes, and extreme heat. This can lead to an increased number of utility disruptions and accidents.
Engineering institutions are already looking at ways to adapt housing to new climatic conditions. New solutions are being developed to rebuild urban storm drains, new requirements are being imposed on roofs that must withstand higher wind loads, and on utility networks that must be protected from destruction by natural disasters. In short, we should not expect any benefits from climate change. But we do have time to adapt.