MOSCOW – The dramatic melting of ice caps in the Arctic is one of the most obvious effects of climate change, but it is also making the vast reserves of natural resources in the region more affordable and accessible and Russia is swooping in to claim its ownership of the region.
Russia owns an Arctic area that spans 3 million square kilometers, which accounts for 18 percent of the entire country with some 2.4 million Russians living Arctic communities (40 percent of the total Arctic population).
“The Arctic is the future of humanity, the future Persian Gulf, and possibly the future scenario of armed conflicts for the control of its wealth,” Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.
On July 7, 2007, explorer Artur Chilingarov placed a Russian flag in the seabed of the North Pole, 4,261 meters deep, making claims to the Russian Arctic.
Russia President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that the development of the Arctic zone is one of the top priorities of the country.
According to various experts, around 25 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves are in the Arctic circle, and 84 percent of those are located on the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean.
To ensure access and defense of these resources, Russia has restored Soviet military infrastructures and deployed a network of military bases in its Arctic territory.
On Dec. 1, 2014, the Northern Fleet-Unified Strategic Command was created to protect Russian shipping, fisheries, oil and gas fields o the Arctic shelf.
Global warming could mean one of Russia’s trade juggernauts, the so-called Northern Sea Route which links China with Western Europe through the Arctic Ocean could reap the benefits of thinning ice caps.
With the help of a powerful fleet of atomic icebreakers, Russia plans to turn this route into a viable alternative to the Suez Canal, much shorter and safer.
On Aug. 16, 2017, Christophe de Margerie, the world’s first ice-breaking gas carrier completed a journey between Norway and South Korea along the Northern Sea Route in just 19 days, 30 percent faster than it would have done via the Suez Canal.
Despite the clear economic and commercial advantages changes in the Arctic could bring, from an environmental and human perspective the melting of permafrost is a huge problem.
“Climate change presents major risks for Russia, in particular, the melting of permafrost, which can lead to the destruction of infrastructure,” Russian climatologist Oleg Anisimov told EFE.
“Due to the increase in the temperature of permafrost in Russian Arctic cities the ground sinks, the foundations of the houses do not fulfill their functions and they suffer damage and the same happens with infrastructures such as pipes, roads and railways,” the expert added.
According to experts, by 2050, about 20 percent of all industrial facilities and infrastructure and 45 percent of housing in the permafrost area could suffer damage in the region of $100 billion.
But beneath the permafrost is an energy trove of methane hydrate, a solid compound in which vast amounts of methane are trapped in a crystal-like structure.
But climate oscillations could melt the solid clathrate compound into a risk factor for the Earth’s atmosphere.
“We have established that, contrary to what was believed, submarine permafrost is not stable, but undergoes a degradation process, so that hydrates turn to a gaseous state and methane is released into the water and from there it passes into the atmosphere,” oceanologist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Igor Semiletov told EFE.
Geological studies suggest the permafrost on the eastern Siberian platform holds 500,000 million tons of methane hydrates, according to Semiletov.
The extraction of this gas requires cutting edge technologies because when solid methane becomes a gas it increases its volume 150 to 200-fold.
In other words, the transition causes a massive explosion.
The ecological risks of the race for Arctic resources are inevitable, professor of Tyumen State University (Siberia) Victor Guennadinik said.
“The unknowns (...) or the consequences of climate change are potentially much more dangerous,” he told EFE.
As an example, he cited an outbreak of the Siberian plague which occurred in 2016 on the Yamal Peninsula and killed a man, a 12-year-old boy, and forced the preventive hospitalization of some 100 people.
“The cause of the outbreak was the amalgamation of biological, climatic, geographic and social factors: bacteria of the plague, frozen centuries ago in permafrost, were thawed and infected reindeer,” he said.
But there could be some positive outcomes for Arctic communities as ice melts.
According to Anisimov, studies conducted in Russia suggest that a warmer climate in the far north of the country will have a positive impact on the health of communities, will increase areas for agricultural exploitation and less energy will be consumed.