Sunday, November 29, 2009

Permafrost Problems

Warming To Hit "Roads, Pipelines" In Canada North

Reuters - OTTAWA - Roads, buildings and pipelines in Canada's north are at risk from global warming and the government must do more to protect infrastructure in the remote frozen region, an official panel said Thursday.

Temperatures in the north -- which includes the Arctic -- are rising much faster than elsewhere in the world, and this comes at a time of increasing interest in the area's vast mineral and energy reserves.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) said the permafrost layer had begun to melt, a development that can have disastrous consequences.

"Melting permafrost is undermining building foundations and threatens roads, pipelines and communications infrastructure,' it said in a report, also citing the potential danger to energy systems, waste disposal sites and ponds containing toxic tailings from mines.

"The risk to infrastructure systems will only intensify as the climate continues to warm."

The panel called for better building codes to help protect against the effects of climate change, better disaster planning and a change in insurance policies to encourage modifications to take into account the risks of warming.

The NRTEE -- which Ottawa set up in 1988 to provide it with information and advice on environmental issues -- also cited the risks posed by coastal erosion, storm surges, wildfires, blizzards and changing wind and snowstorm patterns.

The faster rate of warming is shortening the life of ice roads that supply massive mines like the diamond operation at Diavik in the Northwest Territories. Diavik is 60 percent owned by mining company Rio Tinto.

The NRTEE cited a 2009 report from Canada's federal environment ministry which said more than C$5 trillion ($4.8 trillion) of aging infrastructure could be threatened by the changing climate.

The risk of damage is particularly dangerous because in many remote communities, there are no back-up electricity generating systems or roads or secondary hospitals.

In particular, the report said, communications and energy transmission towers were becoming increasingly susceptible to the risk of failure.

The changes in permafrost, which include sudden shifts in the ground, will make pipeline construction more complicated.

This could have implications for the planned C$16.2 billion 1,220 km (760 mile) Mackenzie Valley pipeline to ship gas from the Arctic to the western province of Alberta.

The main partners in the project include Imperial Oil Ltd, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp.

The report also said containment structures, which hold in toxic mine tailings and other materials, often rely on the integrity of permafrost. A release of toxins "could be environmentally and socially disastrous," it added.

Permafrost thaw threatens Russia oil and gas complex: study

AFP - MOSCOW — Thawing permafrost caused by global warming is costing Russian energy firms billions of dollars annually in damage control and shrinking Russia's territory, Greenpeace warned in a new study Friday.

According to the report by the environmental watchdog, up to 55 billion roubles (1.9 billion dollars) a year is spent on repairs to infrastructure and pipelines damaged by changes in the permafrost in western Siberia.

"For Russia, the biggest threat of the permafrost melt is to oil and gas company infrastructure," said Vladimir Chuprov, who heads Greenpeace's energy programme in Russia.

He said that the group had consulted with experts at gas giant Gazprom in writing its report, which detailed the destruction to infrastructure such as pipelines caused by rising temperatures and resulting melt water.

"These are people who see what is happening and are already feeling the economic consequences of it," he told reporters in Moscow.

Russia's main raw export industries are spread across the Siberian permafrost, which makes up over 60 percent of its territory and includes 20 cities and several hundred thousand people.

The permafrost thaw has accelerated in recent years and Russia is now shrinking by 30 square kilometres (12 square miles) per year as icey territory disappears from the coastline, one of the authors of the report, Oleg Anisimov, warned.

"It's not only an economic and infrastructure problem but a geopolitical one. It means the loss of Russian territory," said Anisimov, a senior researcher at the State Hydrological Institute in Saint Petersburg.

"It's a simple observable fact that in the last decade the coastline retreat has sped up by five or six times."

...Another Greenpeace study author Sergei Kirpotin said that the greatest threat of the permafrost melt may be that it powerfully accelerates global warming by unlocking billions of tonnes of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Methane is some 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping solar heat, experts say.

"Before we saw marshlands just as wasteland but in recent years scientists have realized that the Siberian swamplands have a large climate-regulating role," said Kirpotin, from the Tomsk State University in Siberia.

"It is like a methane bomb threat in our north.... There is the feeling that this bomb figuratively speaking could explode."

In a complex cycle, permafrost melts at the edges of lakes that previously were iced over year-round, he explained.
Organic material -- the remains of rotted plants and long-dead animals -- then melt into the lake from the soil and decompose to form methane. With the thaw, the methane bubbles to the surface and is released into the atmosphere.

No comments: