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

Meals slated for children in Juneau over Thanksgiving weekend are arrayed on tables at Thunder Mountain High School on Nov. 25, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Luke Adams)
Font of plenty: JSD readies meals for Thanksgiving holiday

Nearly three tons of food got distributed for the long weekend.

Travelers arrive at the Juneau International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, made up only about half of what the airport normally sees in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Centennial Hall, seen here on Tuesday, Nov. 24, is being used by the City and Borough of Juneau as an emergency facility during the coronavirus pandemic and will not host the annual Public Market which has taken place every weekend after Thanksgiving since 1983. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Want to buy Alaskan? Closed by pandemic, Public Market goes virtual

Normally throngs of Juneauites would be lined up around the block…

To capture the unexpected action- the unrepeatable moment- it should be instinctive.  In order to build the story you have to shoot the adjective.  In this photo the bald eagle had waited patiently for the right moment to pounce on an unsuspecting vole… the unexpected.  The best way to accomplish this is to master the art of the most difficult subject to photograph– birds in flight.  In order to do this you must learn your gear; it must become part of your muscle memory so you can concentrate on the story you are witnessing.  Canon 5D Mark III, Tamron 150-600mm, shot at 600mm, ISO AUTO (1250), F6.3, 1/3200, Handheld. (Courtesy Photo / Heather Holt)
Focal Point: Great photos are just waiting in the wings

Learn to shoot the verb (and the bird).

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020

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

Construction of the new Glory Hall, above, is going smoothly, said executive director Mariya Lovishchuk on Nov. 24, 2020. (Courtesy photo / Thor Lindstam)
Building a brighter future: New Glory Hall reaches skyward

The structure is rapidly progressing, shouldering aside inclement weather.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Tuesday, Nov. 24

The most recent state and local numbers.

A sign seen near Twin Lakes on Sept. 17 encourages residents to wear cloth face coverings while in public. Health officials are asking Alaskans for help with contact tracing. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Health officials seek help with virus notification

Recent surge created a contact tracing backlog.

Most Read