An Endless: Permafrost in Second Life

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

I finally made time to drop into Endless: Permafrost, the latest design by Sombre Nyx that occupies her Full region in Second Life – my thanks to all who have been poking me to go over the course of the last week or so.

Sombre has a talent for capturing the essence of physical world environments from fenlands to the rugged beauty of Scottish / northern hemisphere islands and more. I’ve followed her work since she opened the first iteration of Endless – La Camargue – in 2019, and have always enjoyed the sense of place she incorporates within her designs – and Endless: Permafrost is no exception to this.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

The setting offers a take on the sub-arctic permafrost that stretches beneath 65% of the Russian landmass and under nearly a quarter of the northern hemisphere. It is a layer of soil up to several hundred metres deep that has been frozen for two or more years (most of it having been in a frozen state for hundreds of thousands of years). Only now it is changing – and it is this change that Endless: Permafrost uses as its focus.

In short, the permafrost is thawing as a result of global warming, and it is doing so at an increasing rate year-on-year – on average, temperatures with arctic and sub-arctic areas of the world are warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. This is both revealing a new landscape within the permafrost regions, and having serious implications for the planet as a whole.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading about the effects of permafrost thawing in the Chersky region in the far north-eastern tip of Russia. Around two decades ago, the main town in the region was referenced in western media as being “buried under ice and snow for eight months of the year” with temperatures averaging around -6ºC. Today, the periods of snow-bound isolation are less long-lasting and  the average winter temperature sits at -3ºC. Current estimates suggest that in the course of the next two decades this average will rise to around 0ºC – all of which is a stunning change in climate.

As a result, the once-solid permafrost around Chersky has been degrading: the few roads within the region that were once passable (in summer at least) by any type of vehicle are now the preserve of 4×4 drive vehicles, the thaw having caused the ground under them to collapse, breaking their surfaces. Similarly, buildings have been exposed to subsidence and severe structural damage and / or collapse – and not just houses and other structures that may not have deeply solid foundations.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

Chersky was once home to the largest building in north-east Asia, a water treatment plant that had been built upon steel piles driven into the permafrost, held in place by the frozen soil. But with the thaw had come a melting of the ice and softening of the ground, opening sinkholes and craters that robbed the piles of support, causing them to sag and / or fall over, bringing down parts of the building such that it looks to have been struck by a massive earthquake.

I’ve no idea if Sombre has in any way used Chersky and its surroundings as a basis for her Permafrost design, but I was drawn to thinking about it, because Sombre’s landscape bring elements of it to mind. For example, close the the landing point is the Arimat-Lubyn Research Station. Leaving aside the slightly Russian sounding name, its presence brought to mind the climate and permafrost research facilities also located in Chersky – facilities noted for being among the first to raise concerns over permafrost thaw back in the 1990s.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

Sombre’s research station sits at the western end of the setting’s upland are. This curves around the southern extent of the region, centring on high peak tall enough to rise above the tree line, its upper reaches bare of vegetation but still the home of paths that climb to its summit, where one the region’s sitting spots can be found.

To the north of these hills, the region offers a lowland setting reflective of more of the changes being wrought in northern latitudes by the thawing permafrost: the grass is potted by flooded sinkholes, while the broken remains of buildings and structures brought low by ground-level subsidence as the ice has melted. It’s an enticing setting, made all the more rich and photogenic by the presence of a sound scape and suitable wildlife – foxes, reindeer, geese, rock ptarmigan, all are awaiting discovery – while there are numerous sit-points for those who wish to make use of them.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

Those who check the landing point should spot the information giver. This provides a note card with Sombre’s comments on the permafrost and the risks involved in its thaw. In them she comments on the fact that the permafrost is perhaps the largest carbon sink on the planet – an estimated 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon is believed to be locked in the frozen soil. This is a worry because as the soil thaws, so organic processes within it resume. These consume the carbon and produce the greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide and methane. and the consumption of the carbon alone could produce 1.5 times more carbon dioxide than is currently present in the atmosphere.

Also to be found within the information note card are a pair of additional LMs that give access to other locations in the region: the Light House and the Endless: Islands. The first of these is a gentle, dream-like setting created by Sombre, offering a long boardwalk over water, places to sit scattered along it, the surrounding waters home to ice floes and a lone green island. The second is another fantastical setting of from the imagination of Jackson Cruyff: series of floating islands visitors can lose themselves within, and populated with their own delights.

Endless: Permafrost, August 2021

Beautifully conceived and executed, Endless: Permafrost is once again an engaged visit.

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