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When a Thaw is a Threat: How a Warmer Arctic Affects the Whole World

Posted July 5, 2019

Global warming is causing the Arctic ice and permafrost to melt. This poses a major challenge to humanity as Europe, America, China, Arab countries and indeed the whole world have to face up to the economic, social and environmental issues caused by a thawing Arctic. Researchers from Russian universities that participate in Project 5-100, a government-funded program aimed at making this country’s leading higher education providers more competitive globally, are actively studying the Arctic’s changing ecosystem.

Free image via Pixabay

Why the Melt Matters

The Arctic melt may be benign for Russia in some ways. To begin with, it will facilitate navigation along the Northern Sea Route, potentially reshaping the global shipping map to this country’s benefit. Passing through the Arctic seas and crossing the Bering Sea cuts the travel distance from European Russia to the Far East down to 14,000 km compared with 23,000 km for the Mediterranean – Suez – Red Sea route.

Moreover, as the ice melts, access to the Arctic Ocean shelf improves. Russia controls 21% of the global continental shelf area, with up to 70% of its ocean shelf viewed as promising for mineral resources, mostly oil and gas.

With offshore drilling and production gathering pace, it becomes increasingly important to ensure an early acoustic detection of underwater threats, such as icebergs and terrorist attacks, to oil and gas facilities. Mikhail Kupriyanov, a professor at St Petersburg Electrotechnical University “LETI”, believes that AI will be brought in to identify submerged objects.

Other effects of climate change, however, are nothing short of deleterious. Unpredictable weather patterns imperil food production; higher sea levels increase the risk of natural disasters; the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra are undergoing irreversible transformations.

As mountain glaciers continue to shrink rapidly, drinking water supplies are coming under pressure. A shift in the fresh-salt water balance in the Barents Sea may lead to species extinction. Melting permafrost is releasing huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere, setting up a vicious cycle of climate change.

Subsea Permafrost Suffers a Sea Change

Over the past 30 years marine permafrost in the Eastern Arctic has been melting at double the rate of previous centuries and is now shedding 18 cm a year. The thawing seabed is releasing vast amounts of methane, which may heavily impact the global climate.

Scientists at Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) were the first to show that subsea permafrost was unstable. This led to the discovery of the world’s greatest dissolved and atmospheric methane concentration anomalies. For instance, in autumn 2018 instruments picked up dissolved methane concentrations that were 10,000 times higher than the background level. Eventually, atmospheric methane levels may increase manifold, affecting the global climate in ways that are hard to predict.

Ignoring findings of subsea permafrost studies while conducting oil and gas E&P may have disastrous consequences, possibly unleashing Gulf-of-Mexico-type events that would do irreparable damage to the environment, warns Igor Semiletov of the TPU Division for Geology.

A TPU research team is going on an expedition in autumn 2019 to investigate biochemical, geochemical and environmental changes occurring in the East Arctic seas and along the Northern Sea Route.

How Satellites are Harnessed to Study the Arctic

According to Vladimir Kravtsov of RUDN University, accessibility issues mean that researchers studying methane releases in the Arctic are obliged to rely heavily on Earth remote sensing data, sourced primarily from satellites.

Monitoring sea ice dynamics is clearly the main task for space-based observation of the Arctic. Scientists have long developed methods, including automated ones, for determining chief ice cover characteristics from satellite radar images.

After a crater produced by a methane gas blowout was discovered on the Yamal Peninsula in West Siberia in late 2013, researchers at RUDN University conducted a survey of the area,   locating six more craters of similar origin. They concluded that the landscape features most favorable to methane blowouts were permafrost thaw (thermokarst) depressions, pingos and vales, or large river valleys.

Vladimir Kravtsov says that aerial and space-based observations have revealed approximately 300 lakes with hundreds, if not thousands, of small pingo craters pocking their bottoms. Clearly, methane is escaping from the Arctic subsoil on a large scale, a phenomenon that needs to be carefully studied.

Current investigations in the field largely involve sites on the Kola Peninsula, a strategically important Russian region bordering on Scandinavian countries.

As Professor Sergey Kireev of National Research Nuclear Institute MEPhI explains, the Arctic region is one of the most susceptible to the effects of climate change, which makes monitoring the release of environmentally hazardous gases into its atmosphere a matter of paramount importance.

MEPhI researchers are preparing to carry out a series of experiments from on board the Kartesh research vessel. They intend to map out the distribution of long-lived iodine-129 and carbon-14 radioisotopes, greenhouse gases and hydrocarbons along the ship’s route, the first such  endeavor to be conducted in the Arctic. In addition, a dynamic map will be created showing these substances’ levels in the Arctic atmosphere.

When Big Data Helps in a Big Way

Applying big data analysis techniques to a set of environmental indicators enables scientists to craft the most efficient solutions designed to mitigate humanity’s pressure on the Arctic ecosystem, says Alexander Myaskov, head of the NUST MISIS College of Mining.

He highlights the case of the Gulf of Ob and the Khalmyer (Gydan) Bay, a region known as a calving ground for belugas, or white whales, and other large mammals that inhabit the Russian Arctic. At one time, the noise generated by dredging machinery in the port of Sabetta in the Ob estuary caused the local beluga population to dwindle to 300 individuals or less. Measures to protect the environment had to be taken for construction work to continue.

With another port, Indiga, expected to be built in the area, Alexander Myaskov is confident that, this time round, a comprehensive study of potential impacts on the ecosystem combined with an assessment of the relative merits of the technologies to be employed will help experts address environmental issues in the best possible way.

Source: Project 5-100

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