Russia’s remote permafrost thaws, threatening homes and infrastructure

A boy walks out of a cracked panel apartment building in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk on November 26, 2018. AFP FILE PHOTO

CHURAPCHA, Russia — The old airport in the

Siberian settlement of Churapcha has been unusable for years,

its runway transformed into a swampy field of puffed-up mounds

and reliefs.

Like cities and towns across northern and northeastern

Russia, Churapcha is suffering the consequence of climate change

thawing the permafrost on which everything is built.


“There isn’t a single settlement in Russia’s Arctic where

you wouldn’t find a destroyed or deformed building,” said Alexey

Maslakov, a scientist at Moscow State University.

Homes are becoming separated from sinking earth. Pipelines

and storage facilities are under threat. Roads are increasingly

in need of repair.


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As Russia warms 2.8 times faster than the global average,

the melting of

Siberia’s long-frozen tundra

is releasing

greenhouse gases that scientists fear could frustrate global

efforts to curb climate-warming emissions.

With permafrost covering 65% of Russia’s landmass, the costs

are already mounting.

Russia could face 7 trillion roubles ($97 billion) in

infrastructure damage by 2050 if the rate of warming continues,

said Mikhail Zheleznyak, director of Yakutsk’s Melnikov

Permafrost Institute.

The bumpy landscape around Churapcha, located some 5,000 km

(3,100 miles) east of Moscow, resembles giant sheets of bubble

wrap in places where ice wedges inside the ground have melted,

causing the ground to crumble, sag or cave in altogether.

“Roads, electric power supply lines, gas pipelines, oil

pipelines – all linear structures respond primarily to the

warming climate and its impact on the permafrost,” said

Alexander Fyodorov, deputy director of the Permafrost Institute.

‘We have to adapt’

Built in the 1960s and 1970s as Soviet Russia expanded into

the Arctic, many buildings in the far north and far east were

constructed with the assumption that the permafrost – frozen for

millennia – was sturdy and would never thaw.

Apartment blocks sit atop stilts driven meters into the



Churapcha, with a population of 10,000, saw its airport

closed in the 1990s because of the melt, scientists say.

Over the years, the once-smooth runway has become a mottled

field that looks more like a dragon’s back, as the ground sinks

and the ice melts. Eventually, the area could become a lake,

according to scientists.

Fyodorov at the Permafrost Institute has been studying the

site for years, and found that some areas were subsiding at an

average rate of 2-4 centimeters a year, while others were

sinking by up to 12 cms annually.

In eight settlements in central Yakutia, a region in

northeast Russia, 72% of people surveyed by the North-Eastern

State University said they have had problems with the subsidence

of their homes’ foundations, said Fyodorov.

Across Russia, there are more than 15 million people living

on permafrost foundations. Russia is investing to better monitor

the subterranean thaw.

“We don’t know what’s actually happening to it,” Ecology

Minister Alexander Kozlov said in August. “We need the

monitoring not only to follow what is melting and how.

Scientists will use it to predict its consequences and learn how

to prevent accidents.”

The ministry plans to deploy 140 monitoring stations, each

with up to 30-meter wells to measure the situation underground.

While that may help determine how quickly the region is thawing,

it won’t help villagers like Yegor Dyachkovsky whose home is

already buckling at Churapcha’s former airport.

In the five years since his family built their home, the

ground has sunk below it. At first the home was raised 30

centimeters off the ground on its stilt foundations. The gap is

now a full meter.

Dyachkovsky has brought five truckloads of soil to fill the

gap between the ground and his home, and says he still needs


Some of his neighbors are trying to sell their homes.

“Everyone is trying to figure out the situation on their own,”

said Sergei Atlasov, another Churapcha resident.

But Dyachkovsky’s family is actually building a garage and

seems ready to take his chances.

“How can we go against nature? We have to adapt,”

Dyachkovsky said. “It’s like this everywhere. There’s no one to

complain to. To the spirit up high, perhaps.”

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