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Permafrost and Changing Climate: The Russian Perspective

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  • State hydrological institute, St.Petersburg, Russia
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Permafrost and Changing Climate: The Russian Perspective

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The permafrost regions occupy about 25% of the Northern Hemisphere's terrestrial surface, and more than 60% of that of Russia. Warming, thawing, and degradation of permafrost have been observed in many locations in recent decades and are likely to accelerate in the future as a result of climatic change. Changes of permafrost have important implications for natural systems, humans, and the economy of the northern lands. Results from mathematical modeling indicate that by the mid-21st century, near-surface permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere may shrink by 15%-30%, leading to complete thawing of the frozen ground in the upper few meters, while elsewhere the depth of seasonal thawing may increase on average by 15%-25%, and by 50% or more in the northernmost locations. Such changes may shift the balance between the uptake and release of carbon in tundra and facilitate emission of greenhouse gases from the carbon-rich Arctic wetlands. Serious public concerns are associated with the effects that thawing permafrost may have on the infrastructure constructed on it. Climate-induced changes of permafrost properties are potentially detrimental to almost all structures in northern lands, and may render many of them unusable. Degradation of permafrost and ground settlement due to thermokarst may lead to dramatic distortions of terrain and to changes in hydrology and vegetation, and may lead ultimately to transformation of existing landforms. Recent studies indicate that nonclimatic factors, such as changes in vegetation and hydrology, may largely govern the response of permafrost to global warming. More studies are needed to better understand and quantify the effects of multiple factors in the changing northern environment.
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Oleg Anisimov and Svetlana Reneva
Permafrost and Changing Climate:
The Russian Perspective
The permafrost regions occupy about 25% of the
Northern Hemisphere’s terrestrial surface, and more
than 60% of that of Russia. Warming, thawing, and
degradation of permafrost have been observed in many
locations in recent decades and are likely to accelerate in
the future as a result of climatic change. Changes of
permafrost have important implications for natural sys-
tems, humans, and the economy of the northern lands.
Results from mathematical modeling indicate that by the
mid-21st century, near-surface permafrost in the North-
ern Hemisphere may shrink by 15%–30%, leading to
complete thawing of the frozen ground in the upper few
meters, while elsewhere the depth of seasonal thawing
may increase on average by 15%–25%, and by 50% or
more in the northernmost locations. Such changes may
shift the balance between the uptake and release of
carbon in tundra and facilitate emission of greenhouse
gases from the carbon-rich Arctic wetlands. Serious
public concerns are associated with the effects that
thawing permafrost may have on the infrastructure
constructed on it. Climate-induced changes of permafrost
properties are potentially detrimental to almost all struc-
tures in northern lands, and may render many of them
unusable. Degradati on of permafrost and ground settle-
ment due to thermokarst may lead to dramatic distortions
of terrain and to changes in hydrology and vegetation,
and may lead ultimately to transformation of existing
landforms. Recent studies indicate that nonclimatic
factors, such as changes in vegetation and hydrology,
may largely govern the response of permafrost to global
warming. More studies are needed to better understand
and quantify the effects of multiple factors in th e
changing northern environment.
CLIMATE, PERMAFROST, AND CHANGE
The Arctic has shown the most rapid rate of warming in recent
years and continues to be a climate-change hot spot (1). The
Arctic is extremely vulnerable to projected climate change, with
major impacts anticipated in physical, ecological, sociological,
and economic factors (2). Many such impacts have already been
detected and are likely to continue in the future (3). This paper
focuses on the impacts changing climate may have on
permafrost.
Although in the public imagination the term ‘permafrost’ is
often associated with massive ice buried under the ground, it
does not imply the presence of the frozen water. Frozen ground
may be ‘dry’’; the term ‘‘permafrost’ refers to any subsurface
materials that remain below 08C for at least two consecutive
years. Regions where permafrost underlies all or part of the
ground surface occupy about 25% of land area in the Northern
Hemisphere, of which about 16.7 million km
2
is located in
northeastern Eurasia and 10.2 million km
2
in North America
(4). Permafrost is divided into continuous, discontinuous, and
sporadic zones depending on its areal continuity. Continuity of
permafrost is governed by many factors, among which are the
climate, presence of large water bodies, snow cover, vegetation,
soil conditions, and topography. Most commonly used classi-
fications define permafrost zones as regions where more than
90%,50% to 90%, and less than 50% of land is underlain by the
frozen ground (5). Permafrost zones differ in ground temper-
ature, depth of seasonal (summer) thawing, and mechanical
strength of the frozen ground. Mean annual ground tempera-
ture is typically between 8to138C in the northernmost zone
of continuous permafrost, 3to78C in the discontinuous
zone, and 0 to 28C in the southern sporadic zone. Permafrost
thickness varies from as much as 1500 m in parts of Siberia and
740 m in northern Alaska to less than a meter in the southern
zone, and is typically between 100–800 m, 25–100 m, and 10–50
m in the continuous, discontinuous, and sporadi c zones,
respectively.
The uppermost layer of seasonal thawing, called the ‘‘active
layer,’ varies from several decimeters on the Arctic coast to
a few meters in the sporadic permafrost zone. The active layer is
shallower in the presence of organic soil and lower nonvascular
vegetation, particularly in combinations of peat and mosses or
lichens. In summer, the unfrozen organic layer has very low
thermal conductivity and reduces the heat flux to the ground,
thus preventing permafrost from thawing. This effect is much
more pronounced in dry soils. In winter conductivity of the
frozen organic layer is much higher, and does not affect the heat
flux to the atmosphere as effectively as it does during the warm
period of the year. Therefore, the net effect of the organic layer
and nonvascular vegetation i s to lower the permafrost
temperature and decrease the seasonal thaw depth.
Permafrost zones are associated with different landform and
vegetation classes, ranging from the polar desert populated by
the few lower vegetation species in the far north of the
continuous zone, to shrublands and boreal forest in the
southern sporadic zone. Tundra occupies most of the perma-
frost regions. Changing climate will cause shifts in vegetation
zones, which will have impacts on permafrost through changes
of the thermal conductivity of the organic/vegetation layer.
Controlled long-running field experiments simulating climatic
warming at several sites throughout the circumpolar Arctic
indicated the tendency towards gradual replacement of lichens
and mosses with taller vascular plants that have higher thermal
conductivity and better accumulate snow (6, 7). Changes in the
abundance and range of the vegetation species may thus control
the climate-permafrost interaction.
PERMAFROST OBSERVATIONS
Climatic change, together with the other changing environmen-
tal factors, is likely to cause warming, deeper seasonal thawing,
and shrinking of permafrost. Direct observational data about
the long-term response of permafrost to climatic variations are
not available except for a few locations. The longest record of
permafrost temperature is available in Yakutsk from the 116.4-
m-deep well. In 1848 it was in str umented and used for
geothermal observations (8). Russian researchers in the 19th
century used data coming from these observations to study
geothermal heat conduction in frozen ground and to evaluate
the extent and thickness of permafrost in Siberia. Already at
that time researchers noted that ‘‘permafrost obviously depends
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006 169Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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on the m ean an nual air temperature. Wit h changing air
temperature, thawing of the frozen ground layers and associ-
ated melting of ground ice can occur’ (9).
In recent years, permafrost observations have been per-
formed at the hemispheric scale using standardized instrumen-
tation and protocols under the auspices of an international
program known as the Global Terrestrial Network for
Permafrost (GTN-P). This program is composed of two
comp onents: Thermal State of Permafrost (TSP) in deep
boreholes (10), and the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring
(CALM) program, launched in the early 1990s to monitor
active-layer processes and thickness, using a variety of
methodologies and sampling designs (11, 12). Currently CALM
involves more than 140 sites in both polar regions and in high
mountain environments elsewhere. Data from these observa-
tions are available on the Internet (http://www.udel.edu/
Geography/calm/). The map in Figure 1 shows the locations
of CALM sites and permafrost zonation in the circumpolar
Arctic region.
GTN-P observations indicate that even short-term (e.g.,
decadal scale) variations in climate may have a distinct impact
on the mean annual temperature of the uppermost permafrost
layer. Such a conclusio n was made from the analysis of
borehole data from Alaska (13), Canada (14), Europe (15),
and Siberia (16) indicating that permafrost temperatures
increased markedly at many locations during the latter half of
the 20th century. Although much of the observed variation in
permafrost thermal state could be attributed to the effects of
warming climate, larg e gaps remain in understanding the
nonclimatic component of this variability (17). Data obtained
under the CALM program indicate high interannual variability
of ALT that in some cases is not correlated with climatic
variations, presumably due to the effects of other environmental
factors. The links between changing climate and the active-layer
thickness are thus far more complex than a frequently used
linear regression between the depth of seasonal thawing and
square root of the thawing degree-days. In many locations
permafrost did not respond in any noticeable way to the
climatic warming of the recent decades, while in some places
seasonal thawing even decreased under warmer climate
conditions. There are indications based on field observations
and modeling that such behavior may be explained by changes
in vegetation, which can mitigate the effect of warming on
permafrost (18, 19), by changes in snow cover (20), or by
consolidation as thaw penetrates into the ‘transient layer,’ the
upper, ice-rich layer of permafrost (21).
Despite recent improvements in the availability and quality
of observational data, permafrost science remains limited in
data. Observations at isolated locations and times are in-
sufficient to evaluate the long-term response of the frozen
ground to changing climatic and environmental conditions over
large regions. Permafrost models may be used to establish links
between the geographical scales from local, at which data are
available, to large regional, continental, and hemispheric. Such
a transition between scales is essential for developing strategies
of adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of changing
climate in the Northern lands.
PERMAFROST MODELING
The history of permafrost modeling can be traced back to the
19th century, when Russian scientists G.I. Wild (22), A.I.
Voeikov (23), and L.A. Yachevskiy (24) theoretically predicted
the location of the southern permafrost limits in Siberia using
air-temperature and snow-depth data. Since then permafrost
models have become far more comprehensive. A hierarchy of
algorithms of different complexity has been developed for
calculating active-layer thickness, ground temperature, and
permafrost continuity. Recently, efforts have been made to
incorporate permafrost models into hydrologic (25) and
ecosystem models (26). Such coupled models, however, are
computationally more expensive, currently cannot compete with
conventional models in the level of details, and require further
development.
Predictive permafrost models are forced with various climatic
scenarios, whereas vegetation and soil properties are either
prescribed or dynamically adjusted to changing climatic param-
eters using various parameterizations. The advent of satellite
remote sensing technology substantially improved the availabil-
ity, quality, and resolution of environmental data needed to run
permafrost models over large geographical regions. In our study
we used the digital data sets characterizing the typical soil and
vegetation types with 0.5830.58 lat/long resolution spanning the
Northern Hemisphere permafrost regions (27), mean monthly
temperature and precipitation data characterizing the baseline
climatology (28), and results from five transient general
circulation models (GCMs) of the British Hadley center
(HadCM3), German and Canadian climatic centers (ECHAM4
and CCC), and two American models from GFDL and NCAR.
All climate models were forced with the B2 emission scenario.
The climatic scenarios are fully documented on the Web sites of
the data distribution center of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC; http://ipcc-ddc.cru.uea.ac.uk/ and
http://igloo.atmos.uiuc.edu/IPCC/). The rationale behind select-
Figure 1. Location of the CALM sites in the Northern Hemisphere
permafrost regions. More information and observational data are
available on the Internet (http://www.udel.edu/Geography/calm/).
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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ing five particular scenarios is the conclusion of the Arctic
Climate Impacts Assessment (ACIA) report that these GCMs
represent the observed modern climatic changes in the circum-
polar Arctic region better than others (29).
The goal of our study was threefold: to evaluate the
sensitivity of the permafrost model to the forcing data and
estimate the range of uncertainty in predicting key permafrost
parameters associated with climatic scenarios; to evaluate the
potential risks to infrastructure in Russian permafrost regions,
and construct a predictive hazard map for the mid-21st-century
climatic conditions; and to estimate the contribution of the
Russian permafrost regions to the global radiative forcing
through enhanced emission of methane from the wetlands.
The permafrost model has been detailed in preceding
publications (30, 31). Computational design is illustrated in
Figure 2. The model requires only two input climatic
parameters, mean monthly averaged air temperatures and
precipitation, which are used in the snow model to calculate
the winter-average snow depth. Snow, vegetation, and soil data
are used in the model to calculate the annual-mean and the
amplitude of the soil surface temperature, and the maximum
depth of seasonal thawing (active-layer thickness). The model is
applied repeatedly at each node of the 0.5830.58 lat/long grid
for which soil, vegetation, and baseline climatic data are
available. GCM-based climatic scenarios have lower resolution,
approximately 1.258 lat/long, and in the predictive calculations
the permafrost model was forced with high-resolution baseline
climatology overlaid with the projected changes of monthly
temperatures and precipitation from the nearest GCM node.
PERMAFROST PROJECTIONS
We used the model to calculate the displacement of permafrost
boundaries and changes of active-layer thickness under future
climatic conditions. Projected by 203 0, 2050, a nd 2080,
reduction of the near-surface permafrost area in the Northern
Hemisphere under five climatic scenarios is shown in Table 1.
Partitioning into continuous, discontinuous, and sporadic zones
was made using the conventional frost index–based approach
introduced by Nelson and Outcalt (32).
Results vary substantially among the climatic scenarios,
indicating that uncertainties in the forcing data are large. The
‘median’’ GFDL-based scenario predicts the reduction of the
total near-surface permafrost area by 11%,18%, and 23% by
2030, 2050, and 2080, respectively. The projected contractions
of the continuous near-surface permafrost zone for the same
times are 18%,29%, and 41%, respectively. Among the five
selecte d climatic scenarios, the two end-members are the
ECHAM-based scenario, which predicts the largest contraction
of the area occupied by near-surface permafrost (29% by 2050),
and the CCC scenario that predicts only modest changes (13%
reduction by 2050). Projections obtained with the HadCM3 and
NCAR scenarios are close to the ‘median.’’
Results presented in Table 1 should be interpreted with
caution; by the designated time thawing may only affect the
upper permafrost layer, while deeper ground layers may still
remain frozen. In the continuous zone the major effect will be
the deepening and areal expansion of the unfrozen ‘islands’’
that exist under the large rivers and lakes. Even in the southern
sporadic permafrost zone complete thawing of permafrost layer
Figure 2. Computational design of the hemispheric-scale permafrost model.
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006 Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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10 m thick or thicker may take several decades under the
sustained climatic warming because of the latent heat involved
in phase changes of water.
Increases in the depth of seasonal thawing could be
a relatively short-term reaction to climatic warming, since it
does not involve any lags associated with the thermal inertia
of climate/permafrost system. Maps in Figure 3 show the mid-
21st-century projections of the active-layer changes in North-
ern Eurasia under three of five selected scenarios. These maps
have been constructed using high generalization of permafrost,
soil, and vegetation properties over 0.58 by 0.58 grid cells.
Because of the effects of local environmental factors, including
topography and vegetation variations, seasonal thaw depth
is characterized by pronounced spatial and temporal variabil-
ity (33), so the real conditions at particular locations may
be different from those obtained here. To minimize the
uncertainties associated with the subgrid effects of local
factors projected changes of the active-layer thickness were
expressed as a fraction of the modern norm. The recent study
by Anisimov and Belolutskaia (18) indicated that climate-
induced changes of vegetation may largely offset the effects of
warming in the northernmost permafrost regions on one hand,
and lead to enhanced degradation of sporadic and discontin-
uous permafrost on the other. However, the results presented
here were obtained under the assumption that the vegetation
does not change in the course of warming because realistic
scenarios of such changes are not available and are yet to be
developed.
Despite their limitations, the maps provide a broad picture
of continental-scale changes of seasonal thaw depth under
changing climate conditions that are generally consistent with
results obtained in more detailed regional studies at selected
locations in Siberia. There is g eneral cons ensus that the
seasonal thaw depths will increase by more than 50% in the
northernmost permafrost locations, including much of Siberia
and the Far East; and by 30% to 50% in most other permafrost
regions.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PREDICTIVE HAZARD MAPPING
Serious concerns are associated with the impacts thawing
permafrost may have on the engineered structures built upon
it (34, 35). This problem is particularly important for Russia
(36). More than 60% of the Russian territory is located in
permafrost regions. Several large cities (Yakutsk, Noril’sk,
Vorkuta) with populations of more than a hundred thousand
and large river ports are built upon permafrost. The ability of
permafrost to support buildings upon it (the bearing capacity)
decreases with warming. The foundations are designed with
a construction-specific safety factor, which in the practice of the
cold-region engineering varies from 5% to 60% with respect to
the bearing capacity, and is typically 20% for the most of the
residential buildings in the Russian northern cities. Warming of
permafrost and decrease of the bearing capacity beyond the
safety range may seriously affect the constructions upon it,
ultimately leading to damage.
A survey in the Russian northern cities indicated that in 1992
the percentage of damaged buildings was 10% in Norilsk, 22%
in Tiksi, 35% in Dudinka and Dikson, 50% in Pevek and
Table 1. Projected reduction of the near-surface permafrost area
in the Northern Hemisphere by 2030, 2050, and 2080 under
climatic scenarios from five GCMs.
GCM
Million km
2
(% present-day value) of:
Total permafrost value Continuous permafrost area
Total 2030 2050 2080 2030 2050 2080
CCC 24.24 23.64 21.99 10.69 10.06 9.14
89% 87% 81% 86% 81% 74%
HadCM3 24.45 23.07 21.36 10.47 9.44 7.71
90% 85% 78% 84% 76% 62%
GFDL 24.11 22.38 20.85 10.19 8.85 7.28
89% 82% 77% 82% 71% 59%
NCAR 23.72 21.94 20.66 9.83 8.19 6.93
87% 81% 76% 79% 66% 56%
Figure 3. Projected by the 2050
?10
changes of the active-layer thickness
in northern Eurasia, relative to present-day simulations, based on
forcing from three different global climate models: (a) CCC
(Canadian Climate Center) scenario; (b) GFDL scenario; (c) ECHAM
scenario. Full documentation of climatic scenarios is available on
the Internet (http://ipcc-ddc.cru.uea.ac.uk/ and http://igloo.atmos.
uiuc.edu/IPCC/).
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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Amderma, 55% in Magadan, 60% in Chita, and 80% in Vorkuta
(37). In the period from 1990 to 1999 the rate of reported
damage to buildings increased by 42% in Norilsk, 61% in
Yakutsk, and 90% in Amderma. The picture in Figure 4
illustrates the effect of permafrost changes on residential
building in the Russian northern town Cherskiy located in the
valley of the lower Kolyma River. There is still a debate whether
the climate change or improper design of the construction,
leaking sewage, and other similar anthropogenic influences are
responsible for the current dramatic situation in the Russian
North. Obviously, there is a combination of the acting factors,
but the buildings are ultimately damaged as a result of the
weakening of permafrost underneath them. As global warming
continues to evolve, it may produce similar impacts on
structures throughout the circumpolar permafrost regions, even
under appropriate practices of environmental management.
The Russian North is industrially well developed. In the
context of changing climate, the infrastructure of the oil and gas
industry is of particular concern, because of its economic
importance and potential environmental threats associated with
oil spills (38). Extracting facilities, pump stations, and pipelines
are affected by the geomorphological processes that involve
various forms of mass movement of thawing material and
ground settlement due to thermokarst. Many such processes
have been favored under the warmer climatic conditions of the
last decade. The annual number of accidents on the 350 000-km-
long network of pipelines in West Siberia totals 35 000 (39).
About 21% of the reported accidents are caused by mechanical
damage to the pipelines as a result of increased strength,
deformation, and weakening of the foundations anchored in
permafrost, and are thus very likely to be related to climatic
change, warming, and thawing of the frozen ground (40).
Destructive impacts of thawing permafrost on human
infrastructure are not necessarily abrupt; in many cases they
evolve gradually and may be predicted probabilistically using
permafrost scenarios. In our study we used a methodology
based on the geocryological hazard index, I
G
, which is the
combination of the projected change in active-layer thickness,
DZ
al
, expressed in relative units with respect to modern norm,
and the volumetric ground ice content, V
ice
, (34–36):
I
G
¼ DZ
al
V
ice
Eq: 1
We used projections of active-layer thickness and data from
the map of permafrost and ground ice conditions (5) to
calculate the hazard index. The predictive hazard map in Figure
5 was constructed using the ‘median’’ GFDL climatic scenario
for 2050 and is focused on the Russian permafrost regions.
Regions on the map are partitioned into areas with low,
moderate, and high potential hazard to the structures built
upon permafrost. The southern zone of high hazard potential
extends continuously from the southwestern limit of permafrost
on the Kola Peninsula through Komi Republic and Tumen
region to Lake Baikal. The southeastern part of the map is
patterned indicating high hazard potential in close proximity to
the cities Chita, Blagoves’chensk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, over
most of the Japan seacoast, and at selected locations on
Sakhalin and Kamchatka. Here, high potential threats are
associated with the projected thawing of sporadic permafrost,
most of which may disappear in the near-surface layer by the
middle of the century. Such changes are particularly detrimental
to the roads, pipelines, and rail tracks traversing the permafrost
islands. Uneven ground settlement due to thermokarst and soil
erosion may lead to dramatic distortions of landscape and badly
affect the engineered structures.
The northern zone of high hazard potential includes the
Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea on the west to the
Chukchi Sea on the east. River terminals in Salekhard, Igarka,
Dudinka, and Tiksi fall within this zone. It spreads deep into
the continent in central Siberia and Yakutia. These regions are
underlain by continuous permafrost, which will not change
noticeably in areal extent; the main effect will be warming and
deeper seasonal thawing of the frozen ground, which may
exceed the safety limits incorporated in the design of the
constructions. Such changes are potentially dangerous for the
preexisting structures, whereas the design, foundations, and
managing practices of the newly constructed buildings may be
adjusted to changing permafrost properties. Particular concerns
are associated with the Yamal Peninsula, which was periodically
flooded during the ocean transgressions in the geological past.
Because of the presence of salt in the deposits the thawing/
freezing point is lowered. Permafrost here is in delicate balance
with climate and may become unstable even under a slight
climatic variation.
Most of the central part of the Russian permafrost falls into
the zone of moderate hazard potential, whereas large areas in
southern Yakutia and in central Siberia between the Ob and
Yenisey Rivers will have low susceptibility to climate-induced
permafrost hazards.
Figure 4. Section of the residential building in town Cherskiy, lower
Koluma River valley, collapsed in June 2001 as a result of weakening
of the foundation built upon permafrost. Although there is still
a debate whether the climatic change or improper management of
the construction caused warming and thawing of the frozen ground
underneath the building, the accident illustrates the potentially
detrimental impact of permafrost degradation, whichever is the
factor that caused it. Photo: by V.E. Romanovskiy.
Figure 5. Predictive permafrost hazard map for Russia. The map was
constructed using the GFDL climatic scenario for 2050. Permafrost
area is split into zones with low, moderate, and high potential hazard
to the structures built on permafrost.
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006 Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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CONTRIBUTION OF THAWING PERMAFROST TO
GLOBAL RADIATIVE FORCING
Thawing permafrost has strong potential to affect the global
climate system acting through release of greenhouse gases to the
atmosphere. Arctic soils contain approximately 455 Gt C, or
14% of the global soil carbon (41). Deeper seasonal thawing and
higher soil temperatures will enhance decomposition of the
organic material and emission of greenhouse gases, whereas
longer growing seasons and northward movement of productive
vegetation are likely to increase photosynthetic carbon uptake
(42). Currently, the circumpolar permafrost regions have near-
zero annual balance of carbon in the form of CO
2
(43).
However, they effectively contribute to the global radiative
forcing converting atmospheric carbon from CO
2
to methane,
which has a much stronger greenhouse effect (44). T he
atmospheric concentration of methane is increasing by approx-
imately 1% annually. In the last 250 y, warming due to changes
of CH
4
atmospheric content was up to one-third of the effect of
rising CO
2
concentration (45). In this reg ard, the Arctic
wetlands are of particular importance. They occupy almost 2
million km
2
in the circumpolar region, contain about 50 Gt C,
and because of the high groundwater levels, favor the pro-
duction of methane rather than carbon dioxide in the anaerobic
carbon-rich soil layer (46). Although the processes leading to the
emission of methane from the thawing wetlands are relatively
well studied, estimates of their contribution to the global
radiative forcing under the projected-for-the-future climatic
conditions are yet to be obtained. Here, we present the regional
estimate for wetlands in the Russian part of the Arctic.
The sparse data on methane fluxes from the Russian
permafrost regions were used to validate a soil carbon model
detailed in the preceding publications (46, 47). In the context of
global climatic warming two major factors, ground temperature
and the depth of seasonal thawing, are likely to have major
controls over the potential changes of methane fluxes. The
highly generalized semiempirical equation linking these param-
eters has the following form (47):
J
2
=J
1
¼ exp 0:1ðT
2
T
1
Þ
ffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
Z
th2
=Z
th1
p
Eq: 2
Here J
2
and J
1
designate the summer-mean methane fluxes
projected under future and current climatic conditions; T
2
and
T
1
, and Z
th2
, Z
th1
represent mean summer ground temperature
and depth of seasonal thawing, respectively.
We used the digital geographically referenced contours of 59
846 Siberian wetla nds from the dat abase of the Russian
Hydrological Institute to calculate the percentage of the land
area they occupy in each node of 0.5830.58 lat/long regular grid
spanning the permafrost region (47). Such a ‘wetland mask’’ for
the Russian Arctic is shown in Figure 6. Seasonal thaw depth,
Z
th
, and temperature of peat, T, for the current and projected-
for-the-future climatic conditions were calculated using the
permafrost model and substituted into Eq. 2 to evaluate the
relative changes of methane fluxes. Results for the mid-21
st
-
century GFDL climatic scenario are presented on the map in
Figure 7.
The conclusion apparent from comparison of the maps in
Figures 6 and 7 is that the largest relative increase of methane
emission, by 50% or more, is expected along the Arctic coast, in
Central Siberia and Yakutia. Wetlands are sparse here, whereas in
West Siberia the projected flux changes are below 20%.Given
that most of the wetlands are located in this region, it is unlikely
that by the middle of the century the total methane emission from
the Russian permafrost will increase by more than 25%–30%.
The potential contribution of the projected enhanced
emission of methane to the global radiative forcing is illustrated
Figure 6. Fraction of land area occupied by wetlands in the Russian
permafrost regions. Data presented in 0.5830.58 lat/long grid nodes
have been calculated using digital geographically referenced
contours of 59 846 Siberian wetlands from the database of the
Russian Hydrological Institute in St. Petersburg.
Figure 7. Projected changes of methane fluxes from the seasonally
thawing wetlands in Russian permafrost regions. Climatic scenario
for the mid-21st century is based on results from GFDL model.
Changes are expressed in percentage from the modern norm.
Figure 8. Contributions from regional sources to the global balance
of the atmospheric methane. Numbers indicate millions tons of CH
4
per year. Projected by the mid-21st-century, an increase of the
contribution from the Russian frozen wetlands by 6–10 million tons
is comparable with the modern net annual atmospheric gain of
methane (20 million tons) and is likely to affect the global radiative
balance.
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
http://www.ambio.kva.se
in Figure 8. The data on this diagram were collected using
various published estimates, and characterize the current
balance between global sources and sinks of methane (47).
According to these data, the net annual atmospheric gain is
about 20 million tons. Wetlands in the Russian part of the
Arctic give 24–33 million tons to this global balance and by the
middle of the century are likely to increase their contribution by
6–10 million tons. In the hypothetical and highly improbable
case of the sinks being unchanged, this extra emission may shift
the current global balance of methane by 50%, ultimately
leading to a much faster rise of the atmospheric CH
4
concentration and significant enhancement of the radiative
forcing. In reality, however, factors that have not been taken
into account in our analysis may substantially offset this
estimate. Besides the changing sinks, these are the hydrological
conditions that govern the balance between methane and
carbon dioxide emissions. Better drainage and enhanced
evapotranspiration may lower the water table and improve soil
ventilation, ultimately shifting the balance in favor of CO
2
rather than CH
4
production. The opposite case of soil wetting,
from increased precipitation and permafrost thawing, will
increase fluxes of methane relative to carbon dioxide from the
active layer and thawing permafrost. More studies are needed to
predict and quantify such processes in detail (48).
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48. This study was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (grants 03-05-
64955-a and 04-05-64488), and by the USA National Science Foundation, grant OPP
0352957. We thank Frederick Nelson from the University of Delaware for his valuable
comments and assistance in editing the English text.
Oleg Anisimov (corresponding author) is a professor of
physical geography at the Hydrological Institute in St.
Petersburg, Russia. He received his PhD in 1986 and became
a full professor in 1998. His research interests are in modeling
the environmental impacts of changing climate in northern
lands, with specific focus on permafrost. He is co-chair of the
International Permafrost Association Working Group on
Permafrost and Climate, author of numerous scientific papers,
and a contributor to international scientific assessments on
climate change (IPCC, ACIA). His address: State Hydrological
Institute, Second Line V.O., 23, 199053 St. Petersburg,
Russia.
oleg@oa7661.spb.edu
Svetlana Reneva studied geography and climatology at St.
Petersburg University. She is currently a postgraduate student
at the Hydrological Institute and completing a PhD thesis that
addresses the interactions between changing climate and
permafrost. Her research interests include climate change
impacts in northern lands, the carbon cycle, permafrost
modeling, and GIS applications in physical geography. Her
address: State Hydrological Institute, Second Line V.O., 23,
199053 St. Petersburg, Russia.
svet@sr11359.spb.edu
Ambio Vol. 35, No. 4, June 2006 Ó Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2006
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... To effectively plan and manage future growth in permafrost regions, contributing to sustainable development, both hazard maps (to identify high-risk and low-risk areas for future infrastructure) and economic information (for both maintenance and planning new constructions under warming) are required 109,110 . Hazard maps can be utilized to identify hazardous and thaw risk areas [111][112][113] , or related to infrastructure data to assess infrastructure risks 12 and economic consequences 10,19 . ...
... Most assessments consider hazard areas by the mid or late twenty-first century, acknowledging the relatively short lifespan (often 20-50 years) of infrastructure in the permafrost areas 26,37 . Many of the seminal geographical hazard assessments were based on the exploration of changes in active layer thickness in combination with ground ice content 14,111,112,114 . More recently, however, other environmental factors such as surficial geology, temperature and thaw of permafrost, slope gradient and coastal erosion have been included 45,69,113,115,116 . ...
... Permafrost thaw risk assessments exist at circumpolar 12,14,20,114,117 and regional 19,40,45,51,63,[111][112][113]115,116 scales. The circumpolar distribution of high-hazard areas depends on the included environmental factors. ...
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... Under a warming climate, permafrost has been degrading globally, at alarming rates in some regions (e.g., [14][15][16]), particularly in regions of thin, warm, and discontinuous permafrost, such as southern Siberia, Southcentral Alaska, Xing'an-Baikalia, and Northeast China, or in the vicinity of the southern/lower limits of permafrost (e.g., [17][18][19][20][21][22]). Permafrost degradation can modify or alter the hydrothermal and ecosystem dynamics at local and regional scales in northern and alpine regions [23,24]. Permafrost thaw over the last few decades and its impacts may have modified the thermal regimes in the otherwise heat-conduction-dominated system (e.g., [25][26][27]), facilitating permafrost degradation and climate warming. ...
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... The use of nutrients as indicators alone would not reveal sewage pollution gradients, since nutrients were not strongly correlated with population metric values and could come from diverse sources. For example, melting permafrost in Lake Baikal's watershed (Anisimov and Reneva 2006) and the Selenga River basin (Tornqvist et al. 2014) as well as climatedriven changes in mixing processes (Swann et al. 2020) have the potential to contribute substantial nutrient loadings to the nearshore. While nutrients also could be contributed by agriculture (Powers et al. 2016) and changing terrestrial plant communities (Moran et al. 2012), these are not currently known to be major sources of elevated nutrients in the Baikal watershed, relative to sewage (Timoshkin et al. 2016, changing mixing patterns (Swann et al. 2020), forest fires (Kulikova et al. 2020), and permafrost melt (Anisimov and Reneva 2006). ...
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... The main risk factors considered in the above methods include mean annual ground temperature, active layer thickness and volume ice content. At present, for the risk assessment of permafrost environmental disasters, the selection of risk factors usually adopts the traditional risk identification methods (expert investigation method, fault tree analysis method, checklist method, etc.) [48][49][50]. The traditional method, mainly based on the qualitative and static thinking approaches, identifies and establishes a set of risk factors by considering the relevant normative data, the experts' experience and the field survey. ...
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Detailed inventory of peatlands by aerial photography shows that peatlands with climatically sensitive localized islands of permafrost cover 17,505 km2 within a broad band of occurrence in continental western Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba). Within this zone, 37.5% of the total area covered by bog, and 9.1% of total area covered by fen have localized permafrost landforms (frost mounds and/or internal lawns). Regional distribution of the presence/absence of localized permafrost peatlands relative to expansive peat plateaus (peatland completely underlain by permafrost) shows that a north to south landform gradient exists that is dominantly controlled by mean annual temperature. Percent cover of localized permafrost peatland in an area is best explained by the amount of total peatland cover that can support it. Localized permafrost is associated with collapse forms (internal lawns) throughout the range of its occurrence in western Canada. In some locations permafrost has completely melted, moving the current southern limit of permafrost north by 39 km on average, and by as much as 200 km.
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