The Great Siberian Thaw

One of the more outlandish proposals came from a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Gorodsky, who called for positioning an artificial dust ring—similar to Saturn’s rings—around Earth, to create a heat dome over the poles that would raise temperatures to the point that the permafrost would vanish entirely. In the mid-fifties, Mikhail Kim, an engineer who…

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One of the more outlandish proposals came from a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Gorodsky, who called for positioning an artificial dust ring—similar to Saturn’s rings—around Earth, to create a heat dome over the poles that would raise temperatures to the point that the permafrost would vanish entirely. In the mid-fifties, Mikhail Kim, an engineer who had first arrived in Norilsk as a Gulag prisoner, devised a more practical solution. His idea was to build on top of cement piles driven as far as forty feet into the permafrost. The piles would elevate a building’s foundation, keeping it from warming the ground below and allowing cold air to penetrate deep into the soil. An Arctic construction boom followed.

Soviet engineers came to treat vechnaya merzlota as exactly that: eternal, stable, unchanging. “They believed they had conquered permafrost,” Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University, said. “You could construct a five- or nine-story building on top of piles and nothing happened. Everyone was happy.” But, Streletskiy went on, “that infrastructure was meant to serve thirty to fifty years, and no one could imagine that the climate would change so dramatically within that span.”

By 2016, a regional official had declared that sixty per cent of the buildings in Norilsk were compromised as a result of permafrost thaw. On May 29, 2020, a fuel-storage tank belonging to Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s largest mining companies, cracked open, spilling twenty-one thousand tons of diesel into nearby waterways and turning the Ambarnaya River a metallic red. Executives at the company said that the damage had been contained. But Georgy Kavanosyan, a hydrogeologist based in Moscow, who has a popular YouTube channel, travelled to Norilsk and took samples farther north, from the Pyasina River, which empties into the Kara Sea. He found pollutant concentrations two and a half times permitted levels, threatening fish stocks and ecosystems for thousands of miles.

The Kremlin could not ignore the scale of the disaster, which Greenpeace compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In February, 2021, the state ordered Norilsk Nickel to pay a two-billion-­dollar fine, the largest penalty for environmental damage in Russian history. The company had said that the piles supporting the tank failed as the permafrost thawed. An outside scientific review found that those piles had been improperly installed, and that the temperature of the soil was not regularly monitored. In other words, human negligence had compounded the effects of climate change. “What happened in Norilsk was a kind of demonstration of how severe the problem can be,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said. “But it’s far from the only case. Lots of other accidents are happening on a smaller scale, and will continue to.”

To get a sense of how permafrost thaw is changing the landscape, I took a drive out of Yakutsk with Nikolay Basharin, a thirty-two-year-old researcher at the Permafrost Institute. Our destination was Usun-Kyuyol, the village where Basharin grew up, eighty miles away. His family, like many in Yakutia, had a cellar dug into the permafrost, where they stored meat and jam and lake ice, which they melted for drinking water. “You live on it for all these years but never really fully understand it,” Basharin told me, explaining his decision to study permafrost science. We set off at dawn to catch the first ferry across the Lena River; because of the ever-changing effects of permafrost on soil structure, building a bridge has thus far proved unfeasible.

The area on the Lena’s right bank, a valley of some twenty thousand square miles, is known for its large deposits of yedoma, a type of permafrost that is especially rich in ice. Whereas some permafrost is nearly all frozen soil, yedoma contains as much as eighty per cent ice, forming solid wedges, invisible from the surface, that can extend multiple stories underground. This is problematic for several reasons. Water is an efficient conductor of heat, soaking up atmospheric temperatures and warming the ­permafrost below. As yedoma thaws, it can create depressions in the land that fill with water, a process known as thermokarst.

Yedoma is also a very absorbent carbon trap, accumulating organic matter in silt and sediment that, at a certain point in the past tens of thousands of years, froze underground. When it thaws, it can release ten times more greenhouse gases than other, sandier types of permafrost. Yedoma is found in parts of Alaska and Canada, but it is most prevalent in northeastern Siberia; in Yakutia, it makes up a tenth of the region’s territory.

Basharin and I drove past the pooling remains of thawing yedoma. Some areas were the size of small ponds, others were effectively lakes. We stopped at the edge of a large alas—a thermokarst lake that has dried up, becoming a kind of scooped-out crater. This alas had likely taken more than five thousand years to form. Basharin told me that fragments of hundred-and-fifty-year-old birch trees had recently been found at the bottom of a smaller alas nearby, suggesting that a process which once took thousands of years is now happening in little more than a century. “In geological terms, that’s no more than a milli­second,” he said.

We drove on to Usun-Kyuyol, where Basharin lived until he was twelve. Cows grazed in front of wooden houses, their chimneys puffing out dark wisps of smoke. One stretch of road was pockmarked with oval mounds several feet high. Patches of yedoma had thawed, leaving steep pits where the tops of the ice wedges had once been. It started, Basharin said, around twenty years ago, following a silkworm infestation in a nearby birch forest. The trees died, leaving the permafrost vulnerable to sunlight and rising temperatures. “At first, people were happy—the next year was a good one for berries,” Basharin told me. But, as the permafrost thawed, the road became so bumpy as to be impassable, a mogul skiing course turned horizontal. A number of houses cracked as the ground beneath them gave way. A few stood abandoned.

Scientists are finding accelerating rates of greenhouse-gas emissions in Yakutia.

We stopped at the home of Basharin’s aunt and uncle, who invited us in for lunch. “We watch television, we hear about warming,” his uncle, Prokhor Makarov, told me. “But we live in a village. Our main problem is making sure we have enough hay for the winter.” Their house wasn’t in imminent danger of collapse, but the earth around it was craggy and dotted with small indentations. The fence around their property had the lurching quality of a person at the bar who’s had one too many. Makarov told me that, in the summer, he shovels dirt around to keep things level. “We’re used to it,” he said.

After we left, Basharin told me, “People don’t understand the end of this story.” Try as they may to adapt, he went on, “the thaw will reach them all the same.”

Three days later, I caught a flight on a propeller plane leaving Yakutsk for Chersky, a speck of a town on the Kolyma River, near the delta where it empties into the East Siberian Sea. In the nineteen-thirties, Chersky was a transit hub for the Gulag camps; later, it served as a base for the planes that ferried Soviet explorers on Arctic expeditions. These days, in late summer, residents who have spent their vacations on the “mainland,” as they call it, return for the start of the new school year, bringing with them items that are rare and expensive in the northernmost reaches of Siberia. The plane was packed, not only with people but with trays of eggs, bouquets of flowers, and boxes containing newly purchased televisions and blenders.

On arrival, I walked out of the Chersky airport—which is not much more than a small waiting room—and saw a Land Rover parked on a dusty road. A man with a flowing silver beard and a black beret sat behind the wheel. I immediately recognized him as Sergey Zimov, who is something of a permafrost soothsayer. “Get in,” he said.

We sped off toward the Northeast Science Station, his research center, on the outskirts of town. Zimov, who is sixty-six, studied geophysics in Vladivostok and, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, moved to Chersky, along with his wife, Galina; a son, Nikita, was born shortly afterward. The Soviet collapse is but one of many events, past and future, that Zimov claims to have foretold. “When you know the history of civilization, it is very easy to make predictions, and, so far, I have not been wrong,” he told me. During the next week, I heard Zimov hold forth on global population trends, Russian military logistics, and the gold standard. (“My rule is simple: if you get a dollar, use it to buy gold.”)

But it was Zimov’s ideas on permafrost that had brought him scientific renown. In the early nineties, he was among the first to come to several related realizations: permafrost holds immense quantities of carbon; much of that carbon is released as methane from thermokarst lakes (the presence of water and the absence of oxygen produce methane, as opposed to carbon dioxide, which is released from upper layers of soil); and a sizable portion of those emissions comes in the fall and the winter, cold periods that Arctic scientists had previously considered unimportant from a climate perspective.

In the spring of 2001, an American Ph.D. student named Katey Walter Anthony, who had met Zimov at an academic gathering in Alaska, arrived in Chersky to help collect data on methane emissions. “When I first saw him in Alaska, I thought he looked so wild, with these big eyebrows and crazy eyes,” Walter Anthony told me. “But when I got to Chersky I realized that, though nothing about him had changed, in that setting he looked totally normal.”

Walter Anthony positioned methane traps, which she’d fashioned out of sheets of plastic, around Chersky’s thermokarst lakes. “Sergey had thought up these really excellent ideas,” she said. “But he had collected just as much data as he thought he needed to prove his point, which was much less than what Western scientists would like to see.” Walter Anthony returned the following year; this time, she stayed until the fall and the onset of the first frost.

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