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International Conference on Permafrost, Salekhard, June 2007

Warm. This is the first word that comes to mind when attending the International Conference on Permafrost held in Salekhard in June 2007.  Warmed by the legendary Russian hospitality, warmed through heated discussions among leading permafrost researchers and warmed by the burning topic of the day:  the worryingly warm state of permafrost.

During five days, over 200 permafrost researchers and engineers from all over the world met to discuss the most recent developments in permafrost science and engineering in topics as varied as slope stability, coastal erosion, methane and carbon fluxes from permafrost soils or thermokarst development.

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V. Romanovsky (UAF, USA), N. Romanovskii (MSU, Russia) and R.M. Hantemirov (Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Russia)
(left to right) exchange perspectives on the fate of permafrost

Permafrost, which refers to a layer, rock or soil frozen for at least two consecutive summers, underlies up to 20% of the world land surface and is highly sensitive to changes in temperatures. Recent studies show that permafrost thawing could lead to dramatic changes in the cryosphere. This means increasing emissions of methane and carbon to the earth’s atmosphere, enhanced rates of coastal erosion in the Arctic and slope instability in alpine regions.

Jerry Brown, president of the International Permafrost Association (IPA) and leader of the IPY Thermal State of Permafrost project (TSP, #50), acknowledges the tremendous challenges facing the research community in largely unstudied permafrost regions. His project, which kicked off in Salekhard, aims at putting thermistors into boreholes in the entire circum-Arctic and the Antarctic. This represents more than 500 locations, which will bring the first global picture on the thermal state of permafrost.

Paul Overduin, a researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany, is worried about potential impacts of global warming on Arctic coasts. His IPY project (#90), termed ACCO-Net (Arctic Circumpolar Coastal Observatory Network) aims at bringing together researchers from all Arctic countries to quantify coastal erosion on the entire circum-Arctic, a task never achieved in great detail and a major challenge for the IPY. “Arctic coasts are extremely vulnerable to changes in climate because of the presence of permafrost and ground ice,” says Overduin, “A slight change in
temperature and sea ice cover can dramatically change the strength of waves attacking the coasts and can represent a major threat for Arctic coastal communities, including Inuit settlements “.

The conference was also an opportunity for the permafrost community to involve young permafrost researchers into scientific debates and acknowledge their presence as the next generation of polar scientists and the makers of the next IPY. The Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN), a project initiated in 2005 by a few young permafrost researchers, has now close to 350 members in 33 countries around the world and develops a large number of projects which will form part of the legacy of the International Permafrost Association for the future. In Salekhard, the network granted three awards to young researchers having presented outstanding contributions to permafrost science. It already plans on a large number of activities at the Ninth International
Conference on Permafrost to be held in Fairbanks in July 2008.

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Roy Shirocov (PYRN national representative for Russia, left) and Sebastian Wetterich (Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, right) congratulate Przemystaw Zubel, from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland, one of the three recipents of the 2007 PYRN award for outstanding
presentation in the field of permafrost.

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Irina Khomenko (Moscow State University, Russia, left) celebrates her 2007 PYRN award with her advisor, Valery Grebenets (right), also from the Moscow State University

The Salekhard conference surely made a point for the huge challenges awaiting permafrost scientists and engineers and the questions to be answered during the IPY. More warmth can be expected, whether in conference rooms or in the field.

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Warm permafrost, warm contacts and warm receptions are the common threads of permafrost conferences.

For more information on the various IPY permafrost projects, please see the following websites:

IPA projects

ACCO-Net

Permafrost Young Researchers Network

Ninth International Conference on Permafrost

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