Professor of St Petersburg University Yevgeny Abakumov spoke about what ecosystem services are, what damage is done to them in the Arctic zone, and how it can be estimated in monetary terms.
The project under the guidance of the scientist is called "Urbanised ecosystems of the Arctic belt of the Russian Federation: dynamics, state and sustainable development". This year it has become one of the winners of the St Petersburg University competition for conducting interdisciplinary research. The research team included biologists, ecologists, geographers and economists from the University.
Yevgeny Vasilyevich, you have been studying various aspects of the development of Arctic ecosystems for many years. Tell me, please, what is the specificity of the forthcoming study?
Under the condition of urbanisation, the accumulated environmental damage connected with permafrost degradation and pollution is increasing. It requires an adequate assessment within the framework of the concept of ecosystem services - direct, indirect and missed ecosystem benefits that can be quantified, that is, monetised. This is important for assessing investment risks, which must be taken into account when planning any projects of economic activity in the North. This is the subject of the study.
What ecosystem services in the Arctic are being damaged today? What is it expressed in?
I will cite several examples of risks that we plan to quantify. First, we have to assess how much carbon is stored in permafrost and how much CO2 will be released when the climate warms.
Another example is the soil subsidence that occurs when the thickness of its seasonally thawed layer increases. Because of this, foundations are cracked, and often the entire landscape changes. Thus, in Yakutia, due to inordinate ploughing and disturbance of the soil surface, the subsidence was significant and hollows formed up to ten meters in depth.
Undoubtedly, the existing risks of water supply need to be assessed. Even 100 years ago, the permafrost was much closer to the surface (at a depth of one meter) - now it is at a depth of 2.5-3 meters, and even the groundwater in some polar regions goes to a certain depth, which creates problems for water disposal. The local population uses water bodies at their own peril and risk; sometimes they are stagnant and used by the herds of deer, as well as the dogs guarding them. In many settlements there is no central water supply. There is nowhere to divert water, because natural sources of runoff are blocked by the presence of permafrost.
Do not forget about the release of those pollutants that were in the permafrost into the active layer of the soil, into the surface layer of the atmosphere, and into the water streams. The need to take these risks into account, coupled with a backward regulatory framework in the construction sector, will complicate the design of foundations and, on the whole, increase the cost of construction. Of course, these are just a few examples - the coverage of the study is much broader.
How difficult is it to assess these risks?
Differently. For example, the loss of harvest of wild crops in the tundra or taiga is easy enough - in kilograms per square meter. To assess and take into account CO2 losses, there are special devices. Losses in the field of recreational services are also relatively easy to assess - how many people will not be able to relax in the Arctic territories due to various negative factors. These factors can be for example: extremely high temperatures as was the case last year in Yamal, which is extremely unusual for the Arctic region; or a decrease in the patency of the tundra, and due to severe warming the road thaws and turns into a mess that even all-terrain vehicles cannot use. All these are risks for the tourist business, which is just beginning to develop in the North.
There are other, not always obvious factors. For example, because of ice melting, the probability is significantly reduced of seeing a bear on an ice floe. This is the reason people come to the Russian Arctic National Park. However, this is no longer connected with urbanisation.
With regard to difficult cases of risk assessment, they are primarily related to the long-term accumulation of pollutants in the components of cryogenic ecosystems. Within the framework of the project, we have to find out how much they are accumulated, how much they are neutralised in the ecosystem, and how they are redistributed with the flows of material into adjacent ecosystems with urban landscapes. It is very difficult to assess, because the implementation of these processes takes not years but tens of years.
Also, it is worth noting the need to assess the processes of carbon accumulation and deposition in the context of the implementation of the Paris Agreements and the maintenance of a global balance of carbon compounds within the permafrost zone: how quickly it occurs. At the moment, the monitoring system for these processes in our country is far from perfect.
One of the designated tasks of your scientific project is the formation of urban flora and micro-biocenoses: invasion, introductions. Can this be more detailed?
Under the conditions of urbanisation, people coming to work in the Arctic region bring with them - on their feet and clothes - a huge number of species, especially microorganisms. In the polar regions, human immunity decreases. To assess the sanitary and epidemiological risks, we have to study how these invasive species are preserved and multiplied and how much their pathogenicity increases in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.
The term introduction means the purposeful cultivation of certain plant species in atypical environmental conditions for them, for example, woody vegetation in the tundra.
Its residents do not want to see only concrete walls and soil, they want landscaping of territories. This is a rather difficult priority task.
Does the creation of park vegetation entail still more work with soils or the acclimatisation and introduction of species?
Both. The first aspect is to provide a loose aerated layer in the park zone that would isolate plant roots from the permafrost. The second aspect is the need to search for species that can survive and feel "successful" in the Arctic. This task, currently very far from the solution, includes the selection, acclimatisation and monitoring of species to determine whether they are able to independently settle out of these enclaves of anthropogenic vegetation. For example, in Yakutsk, Salekhard there are many green plantations, but a lot of them mainly thanks to the annual planting.
How good is the current regulatory framework in the field of environmental quality and medical care in the Arctic region?
Sanitary and hygienic standardisation is the same for the whole country - and there are four climatic belts and more than 15 climatic zones. They are the same whether it's the tundra or the subtropics. In connection with this, the Ministry of Health is currently working to harmonise the standards. It must draw on the evidence gathered in the field. We will provide this data on the investigated natural area. As for medical assistance, unfortunately, its availability and quality is much lower now than in the population of the European part of Russia. Definitely, the standards of quality of medical care should be different.
Do you plan to send the results of the study to the appropriate authorities for application in practice?
We have already interacted with the leadership of some regions of the Arctic zone, and our recommendations were treated fairly positively. There is experience in the field of patenting developments. In particular, we have already obtained three patents for estimating the dynamics of the permafrost layer using relatively simple electrophysical methods. On the agenda there is the preparation of recommendations and draft technical regulations. They need to be developed for each region, based on accumulated knowledge. We have experience in delivering recommendations to decision-makers, and we hope to make our positive contribution to this great work.