Thawing permafrost is undermining Arctic infrastructure | Polarjournal
More than a broken-windows problem (Photo: Alec Luhn)

A quarter of the soil in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, a lot of it above the Arctic Circle, where temperatures are now reported to be rising at thrice the global average. That may prove a costly cocktail. Geographers with the University of Oulu reckon that a conservative estimate of the cost of maintaining and repairing the estimated 12,000 buildings, 40,000km of roads and 9,500km of pipelines that are built on permafrost around the world could amount to €30 billion in 2060.

The figure is based on a review of existing research and published in the current edition of Nature Reviews Earth & Environment as part of a suite of papers focusing on the impact of thawing permafrost. The paper did not look at the effect of the heat created and retained by structures themselves, but, had it, the estimate would have been higher, the authors say.

Permafrost is also found in high-altitude areas such as the European Alps and the Tibetan plateau, so not all of of the projected damage will take place in the Arctic. Still, thawing permafrost and its costs will be of biggest concern in the Arctic, especially Russia, which is looking at a bill of €20 billion.

The problem is that, when permafrost thaws, the ground shifts. Anchoring buildings, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure in some way can minimise the damage this does, but most structures have nothing that prevents them from being thrown off kilter or collapsing. Pictures showing houses built on permafrost tilting precariously are already common.

The careful internet user will note that a lot of these buildings are found in Russia. This is not a coincidence. The Finnish paper found some cities in Russia showing damage in up to 80% of buildings. The building in the image above was abandoned when thawing permafrost in the city of Norilsk caused its foundation to break apart. Overall, the proportion of damaged structures varied considerably, with parts of the region faring much better. Some areas, like Svalbard, are relatively unaffected.

Elevating the problem to a solution (Photo: Heiner Kubny)

As the world warms, the situation is only going to get worse; by 2050, half of the critical infrastructure in the region will be at high risk of being damaged. Again, Russia leads the way. This is partly due to its geography and partly due to its demography. Russia is 65% permafrost, and it is home to 60% of the settlements in the region and 90% of its population. With more people come more structures that can be damaged when the ground beneath it shifts or softens. And, unlike other parts of the region, Russia’s Arctic is the home to plenty of expensive-to-fix industrial infrastructure.

This does not mean other places will get off scot-free. Just as much of Canadian and Alaskan territory is permafrost (half, and three-quarters, respectively) as Russia is. To be sure, fewer people living in these area means fewer homes and roads to fix, but maintenance and repair of bigger-ticket items already costs millions. In the past two decades, permafrost-related damage to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has cost $52 million (€45 million) and resulted in the spill of what amounts to nearly 10,000 barrels (approx. 1.6 million liters) of oil.

What are planners in the North to do? The authors suggest finding ways to prevent infrastructure from retaining heat and transferring it to the ground. In the picture above, flats in the Russian city of Anadyr have been built on pillars for precisely this reason. Another option is to prevent the ground beneath roads and embankments from getting warm by reducing how much heat they absorb. A last-ditch solution could be to thaw permafrost before building on it. That would be the most chilling solution of them all.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

Source: Hjort, J., Streletskiy, D., Doré, G. et al. Impacts of permafrost degradation on infrastructure. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 24–38 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00247-8

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