With the Arctic warming up to four times faster than the global average, temperatures in the frozen soil, or permafrost, under northern Siberia have been rising, turning firm ground unstable and weakening foundations. On 29 May 2020, the thaw may have helped lead to a disaster, when a diesel fuel depot near the town of Norilsk collapsed and spilled more than 21,000 tons of fuel into a small river. The pollution turned the river rusty-red and ultimately reached the Arctic Ocean. The owner of the fuel depot, Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest miner of nickel and palladium, was fined almost $2 billion for the spill—the largest settlement for an environmental disaster in Russian history.
Now, the disaster has spurred the government to set up the first national system to monitor Russia’s permafrost—the world’s largest expanse of frozen soil, covering two-thirds of the nation. In October, President Vladimir Putin gave the go-ahead to a new $21 million system of 140 monitoring stations that could begin to deliver data as soon as 2023. Sensors placed in boreholes up to 30 meters deep will measure the temperature of permafrost at various depths, a critical parameter for tracking both the growing hazard thawing ground poses to infrastructure and the broader climate threat: that the thaw could release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Researchers say the new nodes will bolster a patchy system of some 440 boreholes, run by research organizations and private companies like Norilsk Nickel, that had been in place since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “There was no national system at all, which was such a shame, and now we may get one,” says Dmitry Streletskiy, a climatologist at George Washington University who co-leads the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring program, which has supported more than 250 sites globally and 75 in Russia since the 1990s with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation. “I’ve been arguing for years that we need one.”
The origin of the national monitoring system can be traced to a 2020 report authored by researchers from permafrost-focused institutes in Russia and commissioned by Alexander Kozlov, who was then minister for the development of the Russian Far East and Arctic. Kozlov later became the minister of natural resources and the environment, where he oversaw plans for the current system, which will be operated by Roshydromet, the state weather agency that operates under the aegis of the environment ministry.
Marat Sadurtdinov, who heads the Earth Cryosphere Institute in Tyumen and was a co-author of the report, is disappointed by the current plan. In the report, the researchers called for a larger $160 million system that would have tracked other parameters in addition to temperature, such as moisture or ice content, and would have been operated by an independent interagency entity.
Sadurtdinov is concerned that the system will not gather enough information to provide warnings to the owners of vulnerable roads, pipelines, and buildings, and that Roshydromet’s weather stations may not be the ideal locations for permafrost measurements. “We’ve talked about this everywhere, and the ministry knows it and is listening to us,” Sadurtdinov says.
In a statement provided to Science, the environment ministry insists there is “no contradiction” between the commissioned report and its plans. It says Roshydromet was picked to lead the system in part because attaching the permafrost stations to the existing network of weather stations will minimize costs. Roshydromet has assigned the design and rollout of the system to the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which currently has five permafrost monitoring sites in the Russian Arctic. Aleksandr Makarov, AARI director, says the first nodes could be deployed this summer.
The nodes would add to the sparse data sets used to calibrate climate models that predict changes in permafrost. Knowing how fast the permafrost is warming and thawing is critical to assessing the fate of the trillion or more tons of carbon in the frozen organic matter—more than the atmosphere now holds. Once it thaws, microbes could decompose the organic matter and release the carbon to the air—exacerbating global warming via the so-called “permafrost feedback.” Researchers rely on models, says Oleg Anisimov, who heads climate change research at the State Hydrological Institute, because “you can’t stick a sensor into every swamp to see what’s going on with carbon emissions.”
Adding sensors for carbon dioxide and methane would make the network even more powerful, says Guido Grosse, who studies permafrost at the Alfred Wegener Institute. But he agrees that even temperature data can help calibrate the modeling estimates for permafrost carbon fluxes, and he hopes researchers outside Russia will have access to the readings via the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost, which gathers data from existing boreholes. “It’s important that the data becomes available to the scientific community at large—not 10 years from now but as soon as possible,” he says.