Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Permafrost researchers conquer the North: Yakut scientists at the forefront of climate technology

Russia's unique Permafrost Institute

9 november 2023

At the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, unique garage maintains a temperature of only –7°C even when it's –50°C outside. The garage has no heating, smart doors or special construction materials, just water tanks. As explained by the Institute's director and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Nikolayevich Zheleznyak, in an interview with Scientific Russia, it all comes down to practical applications of physics. When water freezes, it releases heat, and if you have the right amount of liquid, you can use it to... heat a room. The Melnikov Permafrost Institute has developed unique technologies and strategies that allow to harness the Arctic for human benefit, or at least make it more comfortable to live in. Today, this scientific institution is a leader in modern research of the Russian Arctic, combining both fundamental studies and practical applications.

While the rest of the world sees cold as a dangerous force, permafrost scientists view it as a valuable resource that can and should be managed. The Institute was established in 1941 by the founder of the scientific discipline, Professor M. I. Sumgin, and by now, it includes 8 regional divisions conducting research in areas of intensive industrial development in Yakutia, the Tien Shan mountains, Magadan, the famous Igarka in the Krasnoyarsk Region and other places. Scientists are interested in permafrost in all regions of the Earth, including the mountains of Tibet, northern China and Kazakhstan, but the primary research is conducted in the Russian Arctic. The institute is working on fundamental scientific projects that aim to predict the behaviour of permafrost for at least the next 50 years. 

According to Mikhail Zheleznyak, there is currently a trend towards the 'thawing' of the Arctic, but it's unclear whether this will continue. In the western part of the Russian Arctic Circle, permafrost is becoming sporadic, while in northern Yakutia and Chukotka, it still exists and appears to maintain its role for the foreseeable future. The geography of the region, vegetation and numerous other factors all play a role. For instance, in central Yakutia, the temperature has risen by 3–5°C over the past fifty years, while in forested areas, the changes fluctuate between 0.3–0.5°C. The academician further stated that we are still uncertain about the direction of climate change—we could be on the brink of global warming in our region or experiencing a brief 'thaw' that will eventually lead to a cold snap.

Meanwhile, it's crucial to consider the behaviour of permafrost when constructing any facilities in the Arctic. In an interview, Mikhail Zheleznyak humorously stated that he feels more like a 'surgeon' than a 'therapist.' When issues arise, companies turn to the Institute for assistance with specific problems, whereas scientists wish their advice would be considered before construction even begins. Part of this issue will be addressed by the development of a state-run permafrost monitoring system, currently being created under the directive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The project's goal is to forecast the behaviour of frozen soils in the Arctic Circle, which should be taken into account during the execution of projects. Interestingly, the Institute has had extensive interaction with businesses: scientists have assisted builders of the South Yakutsk hydroelectric power complex, Talakan oil and gas condensate field, East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, among others. The range of issues being researched and resolved is also broad. This includes ensuring the stability of structures, forecasting their operation considering climate change, and much more. For example, scientists have developed an energy-efficient seed storage facility. It uses only RUB 1.5 thousand worth of energy annually, as a unique ventilation system designed with permafrost in mind maintains the internal microclimate. The only energy-consuming component is the light bulb. 'Cold is a resource, and we can use it,' Mikhail Zheleznyak pointed out.

Besides supporting scientific projects, 200 permafrost researchers from Yakutia are preparing their successors. The Research Institute holds a license for educational activities in Engineering Geology, Permafrost and Soil Studies, and it hosts branches of the Department of Permafrost Studies of the Faculty of Geology and Survey of the M. K. Ammosov North-Eastern Federal University. Comprehensive cooperation has also been established between the East Siberian Institute of Economics and Management, the Permafrost Institute and the Yakutsk College of Innovative Technologies. This not only promotes science and attracts young scientists but also advances the Institute's activities within the business community. On the international stage, discussions are currently underway about joint projects between Chinese and Russian permafrost researchers. Global climate change is a shared issue, and the ability to exchange experiences is crucial for devising a collective strategy for further scientific development and Arctic exploration.

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