Permafrost thawing threatens 70% of Arctic infrastructure.

Permafrost thawing in the Northern Hemisphere has already impacted 10% of human constructions. Maintenance expenditures for all infrastructure in the Arctic region could reach 30 billion euros by 2060.

In the summer of 2020, one of Siberia’s worst environmental disasters in decades occurred when a diesel storage tank collapsed, releasing 20,000 tons of gasoline into the Ambarnaya River. Thousands of people were evacuated, and it took about a month to clean up the disaster, which necessitated the construction of a dam in record speed to confine the toxic water.

The thawing of the permafrost, a permanent layer of ice that has covered the planet’s coldest regions, was the catalyst for that event. Because of its resilience, it has been utilized as a foundation for a variety of infrastructures. Climate change, on the other hand, is forcing it to melt at an alarming rate, putting not only the world climate but also human activities in jeopardy.

According to a recent study published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the removal of permafrost caused structural damage to at least 10% of structures sitting on permafrost in the northern hemisphere. Russia was hit the hardest, with up to 80% of damage reported, while the Tibetan Plateau and areas of Canada saw up to 30% of damage.

When examining the warming of the ground caused by climate change, it also exposes the fact that 70% of current infrastructure is at risk. Professor Miska Luoto of the University of Helsinki’s Department of Geosciences and Geography explains, “About 500 Arctic towns and communities are located in places where permafrost is predicted to thaw by the middle of this century.”

Railroads, as well as oil and gas pipelines, tend to be the most susceptible modes of transportation and transport infrastructure. In terms of infrastructure, the majority of it is located in hazardous places in Central Asia’s mountainous regions, where permafrost temperatures are already close to 0 degrees Celsius.

“We must keep in mind that the ‘heat load’ caused by construction and the buildings themselves was not taken into account in these geographically extensive analyses,” says Jan Hjort of the University of Oulu’s geographic research unit. “The threats could easily become tangible in extensive building damage before the end of this century.”

According to the authors, permafrost carrying capacity infrastructure maintenance and repair expenses in the Arctic region might exceed €30 billion by 2060. The costs in Russia alone might be in excess of €20 billion.

The estimations, however, were shown to contain a significant level of uncertainty due to the data: “The lack of matching cost estimates from China’s huge permafrost zones can also be considered a disadvantage,” Miska Luoto adds.

The report also discusses strategies for dealing with this and other potential challenges. In this context, the report notes that, in addition to the many existing building technology options, more accurate estimates of future permafrost changes are required.

In the hunt for a more sustainable future, it also views a stronger dialogue between researchers, planners, builders, decision makers, and other actors in the permafrost area to be crucial.


Article Author Gerluxe Image: esa