Pilot Project in Russia (Forest and Peatland Permafrost)
Protection and restoration of forest and peatland permafrost carbon pools in Komi Republic and Nenetsky Autonomous Okrug
The overall objective of the project is to demonstrate effective approaches to conserving, restoring and managing carbon-rich forests and permafrost areas of the Russian North under pending climate change threats. The project will be implemented in Komi Republic and NAO building on synergies with UNDP and ICI projects, and will be highly relevant to raising the level of international knowledge on the climate-permafrost nexus.
General description and background information
The ecosystems of the Komi Republic, and Nenetsky Autonomus Okrug – NAO, belong mainly to the Barents Sea basin. These are rich forest and peatland permafrost carbon pools, but are also a valuable source of global biodiversity and at the same time is an important area for industrial development. Komi shelters the only significant block of pristine forest oriented north-south; this has been included by WWF in the list of 200 global ecological regions and by UNESCO in the List of World Natural Heritage Sites (“Pristine forests of Komi”). The 29.2 million hectares of pristine boreal ecosystems in the Komi Republic represent almost 35% of the total pristine forest carbon pools remaining in the European Russia. Komi Republic shelters examples of pristine Scandinavian and Russian taiga which are now largely confined to areas of northeastern Russia, due to many centuries of clearance and logging over much of their former extent. In the north of the republic there are substantial areas with permafrost peatlands. Nenetsky Autonomus Okrug is known as a starting leg of the Euro-African and Eurasian flyways and it hosts the main portion of frozen or permafrost peatlands in Russian North-East. Forest and soil carbon of the Komi and NAO are some of the key carbon pools of the globe. According to expert assessments of the Institute of Biology of Komi Republic, the 1.63 million of the forests of the Komi Republic alone [and found just in the protected areas in the Pechora river head-waters] contain around 100 million tons of carbon. In an undisturbed state, the annual build-up of sequestration from these forests amounts to over 3 mln tons of carbon.
These are the highest nature value forests, mainly spruce forests, 64 % of which are mature and over-mature stands, which store maximum above-ground carbon compared to other forests of the country. At the same time these forests are highly susceptible to fires. Furthermore, under most climate change scenarios, the carbon-rich over-mature spruce stands will be receding, giving way to the proliferation of deciduous stands. Linked to this, the IPCC 4th Assessment Report further predicts that in boreal forests “the tree-line is expected to shift upward by several hundred meters”. There is evidence that this process has already begun in Ural Mountains. While the impact of climate on above-ground biomass has been studied to some extent, soil carbon has recently gained international attention, and specifically the permafrost melt as a climate threat is increasingly recognized by the international research community. According to the research of the European Union, “Changes in the soil carbon stock could severely affect global greenhouse gas balance and climate. It remains one of the big unknowns in the global carbon cycle dynamics under a warming climate scenario.” The entire tundra and forest-tundra landscape in the eastern part of the Northern-European Russia is standing on two key inseparable ground layers: permafrost (beneath) and peat (above).
Functionally, they are interconnected. On the one hand, permafrost supports waterlogging and peat formation; on the other hand peat layer plays a crucial role for preservation of permafrost. Changes in one of the components will inevitably impact the other, and may lead to the drastic changes in landscape structure and biogeochemistry including significant losses in carbon storage. Carbon is released as result of both melting of frozen peat and more deep permafrost layers which may ancient organic structures. The status of peat permafrost ecosystems should be considered through the prism of pending threats. One of the main threats comes from anthropogenic influence both traditional and modern industrial. NAO and Komi host some of Europe’s largest on-shore oil and gas deposits. Since the 1970′s, significant areas of natural ecosystems have been impacted by the extensive prospecting and exploration activities, the exploitation of oil and gas deposits in these areas started in the 1990′s. These activities resulted in different changes in ecosystem regulation functions such as hydrology, permafrost status, carbon storage and exchange. The human activity is enhancing and in some cases is the only cause of changes in permafrost. Buildings, roads and pipelines, open mining constructions, unregulated movement of vehicles, surface contamination are significantly affecting these areas. This makes permafrost the most vulnerable ecosystems in the northern areas.
A vulnerable ecosystem
The existing permafrost areas in northern taiga are the most vulnerable permafrost wetlands occurring in boreal zone where thawing is highly probable. The dust, sand and oil pollution lead to the degradation of the peat layer which is protecting the permafrost. Disturbance of a surface layer in shallow peat tundra leads to the irreversible changes turning carbon accumulating ecosystems into sources of carbon emissions – both directly through GHG emissions and through hydrological flows causing further emissions. A growing threat to permafrost ecosystems stems from climate change. Since the recess of the last glacier permafrost remained stable for millenniums, accumulating and storing in its depth climatic, geochemical and biological information. But this is changing under climate warming. In the last few decades average temperature increases in the Arctic have been near twice as high as mean global increases. This trend is likely to continue and the IPCC predicts increases above global averages in arctic mean temperature and precipitation, both key factors regulating permafrost distribution. Abnormally high, recurrent summer precipitation increases the number of days when the organic soil is wet, thus increasing thermal conductivity and promoting permafrost thaw. For stable permafrost, the duration and thickness of winter snow cover is important, especially in discontinuous and sporadic permafrost regions where a thick snow cover acts as an effective insulator and protects the ground from low air temperatures.
According to researchers, “recent years have brought reports from the far north of tundra fires, the release of ancient carbon, CH4 bubbling out of lakes and gigantic stores of frozen soil carbon. The latest estimate is that some 18.8 million square kilometers of northern soils hold about 1,700 billion tones of organic carbon — the remains of plants and animals that have been accumulating in the soil over thousands of years. That is about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now. Abrupt thaw, as seen here in Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve, causes the land to collapse, accelerating permafrost degradation and carbon release. We calculate that permafrost thaw will release the same order of magnitude of carbon as deforestation+G4 if current rates of deforestation continue. But because these emissions include significant quantities of methane, the overall effect on climate could be 2.5 times larger”. In addition to climate effect, permafrost degradation results in radical change in hydrology, transformation of ecosystems, weakened capacity of soil to sustain infrastructure, and release of methane. Thermal monitoring of Russian permafrost revealed a long-term increase of the mean annual temperature in the deep permafrost layers under peat deposits of Russian North. Degraded permafrost has extremely low regeneration capacity, since soil carbon accumulation is very slow in Arctic regions and is very limited in the sub-Arctic.
The pilot project is funded by the European Union (€2 500 000).
More information and publications
Mr Vasily Ponomarev, Project Manager
26 Kommunisticheskaya Str., Office 320,
Syktyvkar, Komi Republic,
Tel./Fax.: +7 8212 21 60 38