‘Nature doesn’t trust us any more’: Arctic heatwave stokes permafrost thaw

Record permafrost temperatures are transforming the Arctic, especially for indigenous peoples, whose hunting livelihoods are at risk as ground melts

Teriberka, a village in the Russian Arctic (Pic: Ninara/Flickr)

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Frozen ground in the Arctic is thawing, harming indigenous people’s hunting livelihoods and destabilising buildings and roads across the rapidly warming region.

Air temperatures hit 38C in Russia on 20 June in the Russian town of Verkhoyansk in Siberia, claimed as a heat record in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the global average.

The previous day, the land surface temperature hit an extraordinary 45C at several locations in the Arctic Circle, according to European satellite data.

Often overlooked compared to air temperature records, temperatures in the ground are trending ever higher across the Arctic, according to the UN panel of climate scientists.

Permafrost, permanently frozen ground often just below the surface which melts to mud in summer, covers about a quarter of the land in the northern hemisphere. And shrinking permafrost is causing wrenching long-term changes to nature.

“As one of our elders says: ‘Nature doesn’t trust us any more’,” said Vyacheslav Shadrin, chair of the Yukaghir Council of Elders, of the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia in the Russian far east, about 600 km from Verkhoyansk. The Yukaghir total about 1,500 people.

“We can’t predict what will happen tomorrow. This is maybe the main challenge. All our lives are based on traditional knowledge. We used to know that tomorrow we catch fish or have our reindeer. Now we can’t say,” he told Climate Home News. Rivers that were reliable roads for months in winter can now be treacherous.

A bison horn revealed by melting permafrost in Siberia (Pic: Johanna Anjar)

Until a few decades ago, he said that many Yukaghir did not dig up ancient mammoth bones or tusks, fearing that disturbing bones entombed in the frozen soil could release malevolent spirits from an underworld below.

Today, however, the thaw of permafrost means such finds are more common – and valuable to collectors – and many Yukaghir have abandoned the belief.

“Traditionally the most forbidden things are connected to the mammoth, the spirit of the underworld. Now we use mammoth bones as a profit,” he said.

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Around the Arctic, the loss of white snow and ice that reflects sunlight back to space reveals darker soil and water, that absorb ever more heat and accelerates the thaw.

At the time of publication, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was tracking close to 2012 levels, the minimum on records dating back to 1979, NSIDC data show. On land, snow and ice cover is also among the lowest for the time of year, according to Rutgers University, and Greenland’s melt so far this year is also rapid, adding to sea level rise.

The World Meteorological Organization said it is checking last month’s heat record in Siberia. Daily records can be natural freaks – Fort Yukon on the Arctic circle in Alaska hit 37.7C as long ago as 1915, before climate change was a worry.

The temperature spike in Siberia was “an iconic threshold that indicates the warming we’re seeing over the long term” both in the air and the soil, said Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe and the Siberian region, even in the Arctic, is warming rapidly,” he told CHN. “We’re seeing buildings cracking, roads buckling around the Arctic.”

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The thaw of permafrost may have caused the collapse of a fuel tank that spilled 21,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and subsoil near the city of Norilsk on May 29. Elsewhere, loss of permafrost has been blamed for causing more frequent avalanches.

It may also be releasing diseases frozen in the ice – such as outbreaks of anthrax in remote parts of Russia in 2015 and 2016, perhaps from reindeer carcasses in long-frozen soils.

Indigenous peoples want more action by major emitters to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and to get more say in international UN negotiations such as such as the Paris climate agreement, or UN conventions to restrict mercury and poisonous chemicals that can build up in the Arctic.

“We have these international treaties… but nobody really seems to be taking it seriously enough,” Dalee Sambo Dorough, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said in an interview from Alaska.

“We have relied on the sea ice for centuries,” she said, adding that Indigenous peoples’ oral histories were too often wrongly dismissed as unreliable, anecdotal evidence. Some communities will have to move inland because of coastal erosion, aggravated by sea level rise.

And the thaw of permafrost can add to global warming by releasing greenhouse gases from the frozen soils.

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The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in a report last year that “permafrost temperatures have increased to record high levels”.

“Widespread disappearance of Arctic near-surface permafrost is projected to occur this century as a result of warming, it said, adding that could release tens to hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon by 2100, further stoking climate change.

Rising temperatures pose huge engineering problems for building on permafrost in the region, which is opening to more economic activity, from shipping to mining or oil and gas exploration, as ice recedes. About four million people live in the Arctic region.

Arne Instanes, an engineer in Norway and an expert on permafrost construction, said global warming was one of many complications of building in the Arctic.

“Whenever you do construction with permafrost you start a climate change experiment,” he said. “Experience from Siberia to Alaska for the last 200 years is that when you start construction work on the tundra you change the heat exchange between the atmosphere and the ground.”

Too often, he said, climate change was blamed when buildings collapsed or runways cracked, for instance, when the underlying reason was simply poor planning that let heat seep into the frozen ground below.

Newer techniques mean buildings get built on stilts, ideally with steel piles driven into bedrock below a layer of permafrost. Instanes said it also helps to have artificial refrigeration of the steel piles in summer to prevent heat from reaching the permafrost.

“Clients don’t like it – it costs a lot more and it’s complicated,” he said.

While the Siberian heat has attracted most headlines, a study this week showed that the pace of warming at an Arctic airport on the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway averaged 1.7 degrees Celsius a decade since 1991, seven times the global average and double the Arctic average.

“That was astonishing,” Ketil Isaksen,  a co-author of the study at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, said of the pace of  Arctic warming.

By contrast, the toughest goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit the rise in average world surface temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial times by 2100.

Read more on: Arctic | Climate Science