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impacts of climate change

Impacts of Climate Change - Part 4

BUND/Friends of the Earth Germany

Siberia's houses rest on unstable ground

The 200 000 inhabitants of Jakutsk are tough. No other place on earth is subject to such large temperature fluctuations as this Siberian town with a range of minus 50 degrees Celsius in winter to plus 30 in summer. Jakutsk lies on so-called permafrost. The ground is permanently frozen and even on the hottest days of the year just a few centimetres at the surface thaw. In this way the permafrost has been conserving geological development for thousands of years. It presents a true treasure trove for scientists who can source important facts concerning our climate. They even found a frozen mammoth on one occasion.

Yet now citizens of Jakutsk could literally be losing ground to climate change. In the last 30 years the average temperatures in Siberia have risen by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius. Last year scientists from the west Siberian Tomsk University and the British University of Oxford made a shocking discovery: over an area as large as Germany and France the permafrost is beginning to melt for the first time since the end of the ice age around 11 000 years ago.

The consequences are conspicuous. Locals have for some time now been observing that woodland is tilting due to the thawing permafrost. They named this phenomenon "drunk trees". However, the longer it lasts the less amusing it becomes because the repercussions for Siberia's infrastructure are becoming more acute.

Nuclear power stations falter

Following conclusions made by the International Arctic Research Center, houses, mining pits and factories are considered to be at risk of collapsing. Oil pipellines are close to bursting point, and railway tracks and airports cannot be used on the soft surface. Tarmacked areas and roads crack and sink in the mud. In some regions the number of days on which the roads are accessible has declined from a good 200 to around 120 per year. How safe nuclear power stations are on this spongy ground is also unclear.

Whilst the inhabitants suffer the local repercussions, scientists are fearing an entirely different consequence. Great quantities of organic material, thousands of years old, lies frozen in the permafrost and with that an enormous amount of carbon. When the ground thaws, bacteria begins to decompose this material. As a result of the decay billions of tonnes of methane would be produced and released into the atmosphere. The fears of the scientists become clear when one realises the effect that methane has on the atmosphere. Methane is a highly active greenhouse gas that fuels climate chance twenty times faster than carbon dioxide. Once the permafrost is thawed it will be impossible to prevent its disappearance. A vicious circle kicks in. Climate change causes permafrost to melt, methane is set free and this is turn increases the pace of climate change.

The majority of houses in Jakutsk remain undamaged. The inhabitants have learned how to cope with the most difficult climatic conditions for centuries. They have even established a research institute, the only one of its kind in the whole world, which has for 60 years been investigating how to build houses and roads on permafrost. It's now time for the institute to turn its attentions to the issue of how to build houses on thawing ground.

translation: Hilary Myska

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