When The Ice Is Gone: Russia's Vision For Arctic Development

A coming Siberian station called Snezhinka (Snowflake), will be at the center of both scientific and economic development of the Northern territories in the times of global warming.

Snowflake, a new generation of artic station
Snowflake, a new generation of artic station
Elena Kudryavtseva

MOSCOW — A new generation, year-round Arctic station is rising from the cold Siberian ground with the name: Snezhinka (Snowflake). The goal of this international outpost is the development of the Northern territories in the times of global warming.

The station will be located on the Yamal Peninsula, in northwest Siberia. These wildlands have been poorly developed by humans, except for natural gas extraction sites, which account for about 20% of Russian reserves.

The natural surroundings here are unusually rich: swamps, tundra, forest, as well as many lakes. And also: long, cold winters with average January temperatures ranging from −23° to −35°C. But now, as global warming is melting the ice, this land is becoming more accessible for research and human use. One of the leaders of the Snowflake project, executive director of the Institute of Arctic Technologies of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Yuri Vasiliev, outlined to Kommersant the goals and prospects for the future station.

Blue domes made of frost-resistant plastic will stand out against the background of the tundra. These are the roofs of the future station. The center won't rely on hydrocarbons and does not pollute the environment. For now, it's just a digital model, with plans to implement the project in 2022. Snowflake will appear a few hundred meters from the ethnic-shelter "Land of Hope" in the mountains of the Polar Urals, where the ancient tundra Nenets (Narkag) people have been living for many generations.

The station will focus on technological solutions in the fields of construction, artificial intelligence, telecommunications, medicine, agriculture, robotics, and, in general, life support systems in the Arctic.

Due to climate change and the development of technology, the Arctic has evolved from a storeroom into a genuine resource. But to fully explore it, significant investments are needed, which means that northern territories can only be developed as business projects, with the most promising of them in the fields of high technology.

According to Vasiliev, Russian scientific institutes are on the cutting-edge of Arctic-related technologies. Who will pay for their implementation is the harder question.

Photo — Azis Pradana

Snowflake is partly modeled on the Belgian Antarctic station Princess Elizabeth, built in 2009. It is located in the mountains of Sør Rondane, seven kilometers north of the Viking Heights of Queen Maud Land. This station operates in zero-emission mode. Solar panels and wind generators provide the required energy.

Snowflake will be built on the same principle, to use hydrogen and renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar panels. Hydrogen will be produced from water and primarily used in the cold season. From April to September, the station will be able to operate mainly on wind and solar energy.

The polar regions have always been sites for the development of scientific technologies. Multiple countries are busy learning to adapt to the most extreme conditions on the planet in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions: the Chinese Taishan station in the form of a flying saucer, the Brazilian and British Halley VI station, looking like walking blue elephants, the German Neumayer-III resembles a submarine hangar. There is even an Indian Bharati, which was assembled from hundreds of shipping containers and coated with an outer insulating sheath. Back home, the Indians had built a model of the station and tested it for strength (literally) in the wind tunnel, and now can see the station resist the strong wind and snowdrifts.

The ice is no longer thick enough.

While to many it appears as a purely scientific competition, 40 years from now, when the moratorium on mining in the Antarctic ends, the conversation will take on a completely different tone.

The Arctic is harder to explore. In Soviet times, when the northern region was developing most actively, cities were built near deposits, military bases, and research stations. And the drifting stations provided information about the region. During the 1990s, active economic, cultural, and scientific life in the Arctic began to whither away. Stations and bases closed down, and the adjoining cities began to empty.

Russia resumed drifting stations in 2003. But this kind of work is becoming less and less viable, as the ice layer is no longer thick enough. Still, the Arctic is one of the most resource-rich territories on our planet. So how do the Russian scientists plan to do it? The Snowflake will stand on solid ground, rather than on the disappearing ice, a metaphor for our planet's future.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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