University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Vladimir Romanovsky poses near Fairbanks in a place where permafrost has thawed, causing a surface disruption. (Courtesy Photo | University of Alaska Fairbanks)

University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Vladimir Romanovsky poses near Fairbanks in a place where permafrost has thawed, causing a surface disruption. (Courtesy Photo | University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Study: Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century

In the Arctic, a high potential of thawing permafrost in the next 30 years.

Seventy percent of the current infrastructure in the Arctic has a high potential to be affected by thawing permafrost in the next 30 years. Even meeting the climate change targets of the Paris Agreement will not substantially reduce those projected impacts, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

“Much more needs to be done to prepare Alaska and Alaskans for the adverse consequences of coming changes in permafrost and climate,” said Vladimir Romanovsky, a scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute who has been monitoring permafrost across Alaska for 25 years.

Permafrost is ground that is frozen year-round for a minimum of two years. When it thaws, it can change from solid earth into mud. In many cases, the ground will slump, leading to destructive failure in any structures erected there.

“These observations have led me to believe that the global warming is not a ‘fake’ but the reality,” Romanovsky said. “And here, in Alaska, we are dealing already and will be dealing even more in the near future with this reality.”

Romanovsky is one of the study’s authors, along with researchers from Finland, Norway, Russia and Michigan. The research is the first to explicitly show the amount of fundamental infrastructure across the Northern Hemisphere that is at risk of structural failure from permafrost thaw caused by climate change.

The paper reports that by 2050, about three-quarters of the population now living on permafrost, about 3.6 million people, will be affected by damage to infrastructure from permafrost thaw. In Alaska, about 340 miles of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline traverses ground where near-surface permafrost may thaw by 2050.

“The results show that most fundamental Arctic infrastructure will be at risk, even if the Paris Agreement target is achieved,” the authors write. However, after 2050, attaining the Paris Agreement goals would make a clear difference in potential damage to infrastructure.

The authors looked at measurements of ground temperature, annual thaw depth and other data to make their projections. They note that because of the uncertainties, the amount of infrastructure at risk from permafrost thaw is probably not much smaller than their estimate, but could be substantially larger.

Damage to industrial facilities such as pipelines could lead to major ecosystem disruption if it results in spills. Energy supplies, national security and general economic activity could be adversely affected as well, the authors write. The Yamal-Nenets region in northwestern Siberia is the source of more than one-third of the European Union’s pipeline imports of natural gas, for example.

Many parts of the Arctic’s infrastructure have relatively short lifespans. Planners and engineers need to know in detail where permafrost is most likely to thaw as they plan for replacements, upgrades and maintenance. This study mapped such areas at a resolution of 0.6 miles, allowing them to target mitigation where it is most needed.


• This is a news feature provided by Sue Mitchell of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 15

Here’s what to expect this week.

A view of Angoon from a floatplane on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Thayer Creek Hydro project fulfills ‘dream of the elders’

Angoon hydropower groundbreaking comes after four decades of effort, seeks to stabilize future costs

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, June 16, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel And Convention Center on Feb. 24 in National Harbor, Maryland. Attendees descended upon the hotel outside of Washington, D.C., to participate in the four-day annual conference and hear from conservative speakers from around the world who range from journalists, U.S. lawmakers, international leaders and businessmen. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Trump endorses Dahlstrom for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, criticizes Peltola and Begich

Endorsement could shake up the race, because local Republicans have tended to favor Begich so far.

Customers gather in the seating area of an expanded food court area on Franklin Street on Friday. Reconstruction work that began last fall was recently completed for the facility scheduled to be open between May and September. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Franklin Street facelift: Sites of former Elks Lodge, Glory Hall debut new eateries, housing

Expanded food court opens at former lodge site; donut shop and low-cost apartments replace shelter.

Runners take off from the starting line of the 35th annual Only Fools Run at Midnight at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. The event included a costume contest and 1-mile and 5-kilometer run/walk/wheelchair. The event is being revived this year at 9 p.m. Friday. (Nolin Ainsworth / Juneau Empire file photo)
‘Only Fools Run’ costume-themed fundraising race returns for summer solstice after multiyear absence

5K and 1-mile events will start downtown at 9 p.m. Friday, rather than old tradition of midnight.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, June 15, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, June 14, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle, breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean during a 2006 cruise. The Healy is now on its way to Alaska and scheduled to complete three missions this year, including a sailing through the Northwest Passage to Greenland. (Petty Officer Second Class Prentice Danner/U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guard icebreaker Healy headed to Alaska for three Arctic research missions

Activities will include cruise through the Northwest Passage to Greenland.

Most Read