Olga Dobrovidova investigates the social and economic impacts of thawing permafrost in Russia’s remote Arctic towns
By Olga Dobrovidova in Igarka
A week ago, I did not know what permafrost looked like or whether one can get lost in the tundra.
As of today, I have fallen into a tundra river (twice) and looked inside the permafrost–ready basement of a house through a giant crack stretching across the house. I don’t know about you, but I call that progress.After hitching a helicopter ride, I spent four days with the scientists of the Igarka permafrost research station (or, in fancier terms, Igarka geocryology lab), talking about their studies and even walking out to the wilderness to see them in action.
The lab has two sites some six or seven kilometres from the town, in the forest-tundra and tundra (it’s okay if you don’t really know the difference — forest-tundra is basically tundra peppered with some very sad patches of trees. It’s a border zone between the two more obvious ecosystems.)
They have boreholes about five meters deep and are monitoring temperatures down there as well as something called active layer thickness — how much permafrost thaws for the summer.Fortunately I did not have my camera with me when I decided to go for a little swim in the Gravel River. It’s always nice to know the name of the body of water that tries to freeze you to death.
I am now doing fine with just a little cold, but it was still my personal open water swimming record of sorts. I am pretty sure I caught it on video before the first fall, so it should show up later in my final story.
The next day was First Snow Day. September 12th is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen snow in my life, so I was understandably excited, and even more so about the fact that it hadn’t snowed the day before when I enjoyed meeting Gravel River.
And then it was boat time. My next destination: Dudinka, a major river and sea port some 270 km downstream from Igarka.
It takes a large passenger ship 11 hours to get there, and while it must be absolutely marvellous in the summer, by September it’s cold enough to spend all your time inside drinking tea and only occasionally dare to go to the upper deck to try and not get blown off the ship while taking photos.Dudinka is a very different story.
It’s a busy port and the main transport hub for Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium.
Dudinka was also in that fateful paragraph that sent me on my journey of tundra river swimming and cracked houses. According to the same Roshydromet report, 55% of buildings and structures are damaged due to permafrost degradation.
By the looks of it, that figure might be accurate. A lot of buildings in Dudinka have really scary cracks like this one:An important thing to consider is that, scary as they are, it’s actually quite hard for someone who’s not proficient in building stuff on permafrost to gauge how big a deal a crack like this really is.
Some of them are clearly treated as a cosmetic problem but others can be very serious. I’ll delve deeper into the issue of permafrost damage triage later on.I am now writing this blog from Norilsk, my last Siberian North destination. It’s a little over two hours away from Dudinka by bus — there used to be a passenger train between the two cities but now it’s only used for cargo. You may have heard of Norilsk as one of the coldest — and most polluted — cities on the planet. Sadly, the latter feels very true as my nose and lungs are firing obscenities at my brain for deciding to come here in the first place. Here’s my first reaction to the city in a tweet:
In Norilsk, and let’s just say that’s not a sunset haze in the photo. #thefrostroads #airpollution #coughcough pic.twitter.com/b1x8xjNz64
— Olga Dobrovidova (@thegreendrafts) September 15, 2015
In the next couple of days I’m going to check out Norilsk’s infrastructure and in particular some of the sites that have reported major incidents just this year. An entrance to a blood transfusion centre suddenly collapsed this June, injuring a donor.
I’ll also look into the dark history of building Norilsk and some environmental issues that are directly connected to the state of permafrost and the changing climate.This is the second of a series of reports on the social and economic impacts of permafrost degradation in the Russian Arctic.
Olga Dobrovidova’s trip is being funded by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network.
All photos by Olga Dobrovidova