Melting Permafrost Claims Its First Major Victim, Russia’s Oil & Gas Network

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Siberia is a pretty popular place lately. It was already in the news a couple of weeks ago because temperatures rose to record highs. This past week a different disaster took place there, a major oil spill.

We have covered melting permafrost in the past. The CO2 and methane gas being released by melting permafrost is already reason enough to make this topic a priority, but it is as detrimental to the people and infrastructure there in the short term as it is for the planet in the long term.

A bit of background

In the beginning of October 2019, Russia signed the Paris Climate Accords, and the world was in awe. The country’s previous opinion on the matter was either that climate change didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t a problem. So, what could have possibly made the Tsar of Oil change its mind?

Losing oil is the answer to that question. In that same article in October, we conducted some further research and discovered that most of Russia’s oil network was built on permafrost. This permafrost has been melting quite rapidly in the past decade and can lead to a total collapse of Russia’s oil network. The production capacity of all existing oil and gas facilities has already declined because the foundation can no longer bear the load. Some have declined as little as 2% and some have declined by more than 20% since the 1990s. This also puts at risk all current development plans and facilities that are currently under construction that are supposed to supply oil and gas to China.

What was predicted has come to pass

This past week, the city of Norilsk, a city in Siberia located within the Arctic circle, experienced an oil spill. A 21,000 litre storage tank of diesel oil had collapsed. Because of that, 6,000 tons spilled onto the ground and as much as 15,000 tons spilled into various bodies of water in the area, including at least one river. This fuel was intended for heating homes and structures, and because of that, was dyed red. Now that it has spilled, a huge swath of the Ambarnaya River has also become gushing red, and it is not a pretty sight. Best of all is how this video on Twitter depicts it:

The oil company’s inactions

This actually leads us to the next major issues. While Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency due to this, just like you and me, he reportedly found out about this because people started posting it on social media. The company responsible, to which we will get to in just a second, did not immediately report the incident to the authorities. Because of that, a criminal case of negligence has already been filed against the company.

That company is called Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Co., but what is important to mention is that this is a subsidiary of Nornicel, which is how everyone in the area refers to it. The company is co-owned by someone who is “officially” Russia’s richest billionaire. In 2020, his wealth surpassed $20 billion. It is currently at $25.5 billion according to the Forbes real-time billionaire net worth site. However, what is not yet reflected is that the oil spill cleanup has already cost the billionaire $1.5 billion, and costs are likely to continue to mount.

Permafrost peatland in Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and smaller thermokarst wetlands. Photo courtesy Miriam Jones, U.S. Geological Survey.

Permafrost is the cause

Since then, the company has put out the following statement: “The accident was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank.” This is the key to everything. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil, sand, and gravel. Large parts are made up of ice that maintains the structure and traps a lot of methane and CO2. There are two main types of permafrost, contiguous permafrost that stays frozen for thousands if not millions of years and discontiguous permafrost, which we have labeled on the map under the two sub-categories “Seasonal permafrost that melts in the summer” and “Scattered permafrost,” for which a good example would be soil in the constant shadow of a mountain.

The biggest issue is that now the contiguous permafrost, labeled as year-round permafrost, is melting for the first time. What you have to understand is that this permafrost used to be as good a foundation as concrete. People living there dug holes in the ground and used that to refrigerate goods. In the 20th century, the earth’s permafrost has warmed by 6 degrees. In the past, the top layer of contiguous permafrost would melt in the summer and refreeze in the winter. However, nowadays, the permafrost melts in the summer and does not refreeze in the winter, and so in the next summer, even more permafrost melts, because the top layer didn’t refreeze. As already mentioned before, almost all of Russia’s oil and gas fields are located under permafrost and a significant portion of Russia’s oil and gas pipelines go over permafrost. Russia’s planned pipelines to China are especially at risk here.

First oil spill of its kind

This oil spill is the very first of its kind. It’s not that a tanker ship got hit and leaked into the ocean. It’s not pressure that has made an oil head explode. It’s literally the foundation of the building melting away. While this may not be the best comparison, the Leaning Tower of Pisa also started to sink because of soft ground on one side. The same will happen, but a lot more severely, to all infrastructure built upon permafrost. 

While its best to hope that this is also the last oil spill caused by permafrost, because its so detrimental to the environment, that is pretty unlikely. Permafrost is melting rapidly, so fast that melting has already reached a point scientists didn’t expect to see until 2100 or at least 2050.

It is also believed that melting permafrost could be a tipping point for a positive feedback loop, wherein the release of greenhouse gasses in turn warms the permafrost enough to continue releasing gas. If this is the case, then even some pretty pessimistic climate change predictions could be optimistic. Sadly, this threat is quite poorly understood. While the IPCC report has now covered it with more than a footnote, that process is slow and the IPCC team is a good 5 years behind at the very least. Unlike the glamorous melting ice caps that can be measured from satellites or easily landed on with airplanes, permafrost is a lot more difficult to get to and study.

The outcome?

There are a few things we can be certain of. The first is that this is going to cost Russia a lot of money. Russia will either have to keep decreasing oil production to prevent infrastructure from collapsing like this or build a lot more infrastructure to spread the weight, and hopefully build it in a way that can survive melting permafrost, if such a thing is even possible at all. Likely, it will be a combination of these things.

Technically, there is a third option, the country could invest in renewable energy. However, barring some dramatic socioeconomic and political changes, I don’t really see that happening anytime soon.

The other thing we can also be certain of is that a lot more permafrost is going to melt by the end of the century, even if we were stop all emissions today. Even if it can be stopped, it cannot be reversed. 

The last certainty is that fossil fuels don’t have a long-term future, and its short-term future is changing for the worse each day.

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Chanan Bos

Chanan grew up in a multicultural, multi-lingual environment that often gives him a unique perspective on a variety of topics. He is always in thought about big picture topics like AI, quantum physics, philosophy, Universal Basic Income, climate change, sci-fi concepts like the singularity, misinformation, and the list goes on. Currently, he is studying creative media & technology but already has diplomas in environmental sciences as well as business & management. His goal is to discourage linear thinking, bias, and confirmation bias whilst encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and helping people understand exponential progress. Chanan is very worried about his future and the future of humanity. That is why he has a tremendous admiration for Elon Musk and his companies, foremost because of their missions, philosophy, and intent to help humanity and its future.

Chanan Bos has 118 posts and counting. See all posts by Chanan Bos