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

 

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

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.

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.

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

 

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.

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.

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.

The study was published in the respected Nature Communications publication series on 11 December 2018.

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Main photo: The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline system is 1 288 kilometers long and runs across Alaska from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Jan Hjort

 

Last updated: 21.1.2019