The thaw of permafrost is a threat for Arctic cities and industries

According to international research led by Finnish geographers, as much as 70% of the infrastructure in Arctic areas of permafrost is at risk as the climate warms up.

The thaw of permafrost and the resulting ground subsidence may, according to researchers, pose a threat to the sustainable development and exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic region in the coming decades. Three-quarters of the population living in the Northern Hemisphere permafrost region, about 4 million people, live in risk areas.

The study Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century was published in the respected Nature Communications publication series on 11 December 2018.

Built environment in northern areas is at risk as the climate warms up

Economic activity requiring efficient infrastructure is increasing in the Arctic regions. “The large amount of infrastructure related to gas and oil industry in areas of thawing permafrost is undoubtedly a worrying aspect”, says one of the two main researchers behind the study, Professor Jan Hjort from the Geography Research Unit at the University of Oulu.

An apartment building in Chersky, Russia (lower Kolyma River) partially destroyed by thawing icy permafrost under one of its section.

Photo:Vladimir Romanovsky 

According to the research results, one third of pan-Arctic infrastructure and 45% of the hydrocarbon extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are located in regions of highest risk. “A sustainable use of natural resources is already challenging in the current Arctic environment. Our research shows that the built Arctic environment is subjected to an extensive impact if the temperature rises by only two degrees Celsius”, Professor Miska Luoto from the Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki points out.

When building infrastructure in areas of permafrost, it has not always been considered that the soil can become waterlogged or sink, thus increasing the risk of environmental damage. We can prepare for the thaw of permafrost and loss of bearing capacity, but the solutions of construction engineering are often expensive.

“Our study reveals, in particular, the areas in which local risk analyses and preparedness for problems caused by the melting permafrost are of paramount importance”, Professor Hjort says. For example, damage to industrial facilities or oil pipelines may have far-reaching local effects, but also broad regional environmental impacts throughout the Arctic Ocean.

Reduction of emissions, and infrastructure risks

The risk to the built environment was assessed through three frequently used climate scenarios (RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP8.5). “It should be noted that the results show a reasonable level of uncertainty because of the broad area of investigation and complex interactions, even if the main message is a clear”, says Professor Luoto.

riskialueiden kartta

The hazard areas of infrastructure in the permafrost areas of the Northern Hemisphere by year 2050.

The results show that, despite rapid climate change mitigation, the amount of infrastructure at risk will remain at approximately the same level until the middle of this century. On the other hand, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would reduce, in particular, the amount of industrial infrastructure situated in the area of highest risk after the year 2050.

A private house north of Fairbanks is unevenly sinking into thawing ice-rich permafrost.

Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky 

The study is part of the INFRAHAZARD project funded by the Academy of Finland's Arctic Academy Programme ARKTIKO. The project focuses on understanding of the impact of climate change on Earth surface systems, and assesses their risk to human activity.

Reference:

Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century. Jan Hjort, Olli Karjalainen, Juha Aalto, Sebastian Westermann, Vladimir E. Romanovsky, Frederick E. Nelson, Bernd Etzelmüller & Miska Luoto.http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07557-4. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 5147 (2018)

More Information:

Professor Miska Luoto, University of Helsinki, the Department of Geosciences and Geography, The BioGeoClimate Modelling Lab
Phone:: +358 44 2727327
Email: miska.luoto@helsinki.fi

Researcher Juha Aalto, University of Helsinki, the Department of Geosciences and Geography
Phone: +358 50 448 0407
Email: juha.aalto@helsinki.fi

Professor Jan Hjort, The Geography Research Unit of the University of Oulu
Phone: +358 29 448 1704
Email: jan.hjort@oulu.fi

Science communicator Riitta-Leena Inki
Email: riitta-leena.inki@helsinki.fi
Phone: +358 50 448 5770
Twitter: @inkiriitta