The climate change–induced melting of the permafrost layer in the Russian High North is now proceeding so quickly that Moscow will have to spend at least 172 billion rubles ($2.6 billion) per year for the foreseeable future to patch up the buildings, highways, rail lines, and oil and natural gas pipelines under threat there. But even if the Russian government can come up with the money, an unlikely prospect, such spending will not prevent the collapse of cities in the region caused by outmigration, which in turn undermines long-term prospects for the Northern Sea Route. The situation is exacerbated by ever more frequent oil and gas spills from damaged pipelines along with the continuing release of methane trapped in the ground, further accelerating the global warming trend. Just as alarmingly, the thawing of the Russian permafrost threatens to spark new epidemics if it releases dangerous virulent microbes that had heretofore been locked away in the frozen tundra. As a result, President Vladimir Putin’s three key goals for the region and Russia as a whole—1) the continued reliance on natural resource exports, most of which originate in the permafrost zone, 2) the expansion of Russian-controlled shipping along the Northern Sea Route, and 3) the projection of Russian power across the Arctic—are being compromised.
Some of these problems were already predicted by the expert community and even acknowledged by some Russian officials (see EDM, September 11, 2018 and December 6, 2018). Yet the speed with which the melting of the permafrost in the High North is now occurring has shocked all but the biggest pessimists, forcing Moscow to focus on what it will cost to salvage the situation and, at the same time, what it will mean if the Russian government proves incapable of doing so (EurasiaNet, The Barents Observer, June 29, 2021; Hse.ru, January 21, 2021).
In the last year, the situation has become so dire that some in the capital are desperately searching for a silver lining, arguing that the warming in the High North could allow Russia to develop its agricultural sector in places that hitherto were too cold. But such hopeful suggestions are being dismissed for two reasons. First, the release of methane gas and ancient microbes due to the melting of the Arctic permafrost will make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to work the land. And secondly, agriculture depends not only on the temperature of the air and ground but on the quality of the soil; and in most portions of the Russian High North, the soil quality is too low to support crops except with massive and expensive fertilization programs.
Even today, most Russians refer to the frozen land of the north as “the eternal permafrost.” But global warming increasingly means that it is no longer “eternal,” Oleg Ivanov of the online outlet East Russia says. According to his estimates, “The degradation of eternal permafrost is gaining speed and poses global risks both to nature and to the infrastructure erected over it. The harm is already assessed as amounting to billions of rubles. Soon, the cost will go up to hundreds of billions,” with much of the population leaving as buildings collapse, pipelines break, and transportation and communications links become severed. The hard ground under and around them is projected to turn into swamps or experience ever more common wildfires; while local inhabitants could routinely fall sick as a result of the emergence of ancient bacteria and the growth of new ones in the petri dish that the emerging swamplands will represent (East Russia, January 18).
Scholars say that the departure of Russians from the region is also accelerating, leading to the shrinking and even disappearance of major cities, thus eliminating many of the supply chains needed to support facilities in the High North that Moscow wants to use to maintain its dominance over the Northern Sea Route and to project power across the Arctic. Global warming is already threatening Russia’s role because ships from other countries can traverse the route without accompanying Russian icebreakers for more months out of the year. The Kremlin has tried to limit that ability by requiring even the ships that do not use Russian accompaniment to be of Russian manufacture (Topwar.ru, June 5). But as some of the largest cities in the High North continue to decline in size, while smaller towns and villages disappear altogether, the authorities’ ability to supply its myriad military facilities in the region becomes far more difficult and expensive.
Several of the larger cities in northern Russia arose at the time of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s GULAG, when the use of prison labor meant that Moscow could build and maintain them at lesser cost. With the end of the GULAG system, however, those polar region cities dwindled in size, despite state efforts to slow their decline by providing massive subsidies from the center, which attracted workers for a time. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the urban contraction in the Arctic only accelerated. Vorkuta, for example, has seen its population fall from 116,000 in 1991 to 54,000 now, with no end in sight to this demographic collapse. Indeed, Vorkuta’s future may match that of its surrounding towns and villages, which have disappeared completely. If Vorkuta and other northern cities become ghost towns, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine how Moscow can maintain its current course in the High North.
Russian officials and researchers, not surprisingly, have been trying to come up with a fix, including placing insulation layers between buildings and pipelines and the melting ground as well as installing refrigeration units to keep the ground from melting. But they concede that these methods are extraordinarily expensive and, even in the best case, Moscow will not be able to employ them for several decades. In the meantime, these investigators say, Moscow will have to scale back its ambitious plans in the High North or face the prospect that nature will undermine everything the Russian authorities hope to achieve there (Vtimes.io, May 29; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 1).