Permafrost in Russia and climate change: houses threatened with collapse

IIn some regions of Russia it is now dangerous to live. Here the ground literally breaks away from under people’s feet. This is happening more and more often, because as temperatures rise, the ground, which is frozen to great depths, thaws. Huge holes in the streets and sliding slopes are the most visible consequences of global warming. Residential houses are also threatened. “When the permafrost thaws, they run the risk of collapsing. This is currently a dangerous trend, ”says engineer Ali Kerimov. He and other experts from the city of Norilsk now want to make life in the Arctic Ocean safer.

In the industrial city of Norilsk, the houses stand on stilts, as in many other places in permafrost areas. “They are 10 to 30 meters deep,” says Kerimow, director of the research and production company Fundament. This construction method prevents buildings from collapsing in the event of temperature fluctuations. In fact. Cracks on the outer walls of houses show that the floor is in motion.

When it gets warmer and warmer, the ground sinks deeper – and stakes could hardly save houses from collapsing, says the 55-year-old Kerimow of the dpa. If the ground has thawed three to five meters into the depth, then it can sink up to one meter.

A huge freezer

This is a serious problem in the largest country on earth in terms of area. Almost two thirds of the land area in Russia is permanently frozen. This phenomenon is called permafrost. In this huge freezer are immense amounts of remains of plants and animals that have not yet been broken down by microbes. These only become active when the temperatures rise and the soil softens.

This is exactly what happens in many regions that are usually known for severe frosts. “Global warming can no longer be denied,” says Mathias Ulrich, geographer at the University of Leipzig. “The Arctic is the epicenter of global warming. Nowhere else on this planet is it as pronounced as there. “

The greenhouse effect is fueled further

This is not without consequences for the permafrost. They can be found mainly in Alaska, Canada and in Siberia from the Arctic Ocean to partly to the Urals and in the south to Mongolia. Researchers are concerned that as the permafrost thaws, large amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide could be released. “That, in turn, would further intensify the greenhouse effect,” predicts Ulrich.

A team led by the Bonn scientist Nikolaus Froitzheim has now also found out that a lot of methane was released in two limestone areas in the hot summer of 2020 in northern Siberia. The experts fear that the crevice and cave systems in the limestone, which were previously filled with ice and gas hydrate, have become permeable as a result of the warming and that the harmful gas has entered the atmosphere. The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Many people in areas with permafrost are already feeling the immediate consequences of climate change – on their own doorstep. Buildings, streets and paths become unstable or collapse.

Houses about to collapse

The consequences are meticulously documented in the northernmost city on earth, Norilsk. 240 houses are on Mayor Dmitri Karassev’s list that have to be renovated due to damage or are no longer habitable. Every third building already has deformations. “We have to do everything we can to stabilize the houses so that there are no accidents,” said Karassjow recently at a German-Russian raw materials conference.

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According to current studies, more than 1,000 settlements and cities with a total of around five million people are currently built on the Arctic frozen ground, says the expert Ulrich. “Forecasts assume that 42 percent of these settlements will be free of permafrost in 30 years.” In Russia alone, 20 percent of all buildings and 19 percent of the infrastructure could be affected by the consequences of global warming.

There is a risk of huge financial damage

The Russian Ministry of the Environment estimates that by 2050 the damage caused by the thawing of frozen ground could amount to the equivalent of 57 billion euros. Money that might be missing elsewhere, for example for social spending.

An example from spring 2020 shows that there is a risk of environmental pollution. Near Norilsk, more than 21,000 liters of diesel had leaked from a damaged tank because supports had sunk in the thawing ground. Environmentalists then spoke of a disaster for nature.

In order to prevent accidents like this one or house collapses, the engineer Kerimow advocates regular monitoring of frozen floors. “The monitoring system should be set up in such a way that changes in the soil temperature and a possible lower load-bearing capacity of the foundation can be predicted five to ten years in advance.” Then there would be enough time to find ways and means, “suitable measures” for more security in good time to implement.

Even now, foundations and floors are being artificially cooled so that houses do not collapse on melting permafrost. The experts use so-called thermal stabilizers. The permafrost expert and his team are also researching new materials for foundations that can withstand temperature fluctuations better.

Without new solutions, no more buildings could be built in the future – or damage would be programmed. Norilsk is already doing without new high-rise buildings, says Mayor Karassjow. Since 2002 only smaller buildings have been built on the thawing ground.

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