Permafrost thaw threatens millions of Arctic residents and their infrastructure

By mid-century, permafrost thaw could affect 3.6 million people and 70 percent of infrastructure.

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The trans-Alaska Pipeline near Toolik Lake in Alaska’s in the fall. The pipeline is among the infrastructure threatened by the faster-than-expected thawing of Arctic permafrost. (Kim Mincer / Bureau of Land Management)

Across the Arctic, cities, highways, railroads, oil fields and other structures inhabited by or used by people perch precariously on permafrost that is warming.

Now scientists have quantified just who and what is vulnerable to thaw how much of that human infrastructure is vulnerable to permafrost thaw. Three-quarters of the population in the world’s permafrost region — about 3.6 million people — and about 70 percent of manmade infrastructure are at risk of damage from near-surface thaw by the middle of the century, says a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

“A substantial proportion of the fundamental human infrastructure is potentially at risk,” says the study.

For co-author Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, 25 years of permafrost research in Alaska has convinced him that climate change is profound.

“It’s not fake. Anybody who lives in Alaska or other places like Alaska, they have no doubts about it, by now. Washington, D.C.? Different situation,” he said in an interview at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in the nation’s capital. “People who live in this environment, they believe in what they see.” People in Washington, he said, “see what they believe.”

The study, by scientists in Finland, Norway and Michigan as well as Romanovsky, is the first to take a pan-Arctic approach to surveying infrastructure risks from permafrost thaw. It uses higher-resolution data than has been used in previous regional permafrost, and it addresses some of the important economic costs caused by climate change.

“Owing to the increasing economic and environmental relevance of the Arctic, it is of a vital importance to gain detailed knowledge about risk exposure in areas of current and future infrastructure,” the study says.

It finds that about two-thirds of current Arctic infrastructure is located on land where near-surface permafrost is expected to thaw by the middle of the century. That area encompasses more than 1,200 settlements and a lot of critical oil and gas infrastructure — including 1,590 kilometers (988 miles) of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, miles (1,260 kilometers (783 miles) of natural gas pipelines flowing out of Russia’s Yamal-Nenets region and 550 kilometers (342 miles) of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System that carries crude oil 800 miles from the North Slope.

All those cities, towns and structures remain at risk in the first half of the century even if the carbon-emissions reductions agreed to in Paris in 2015 are achieved, the study concludes. For structures on permafrost, benefits of the Paris agreement would not be realized until after 2050, the study finds.

In Alaska, experts had previously believed that the North Slope’s permafrost was cold enough to be stable and protected from thaw, Romanovsky said. But the data now show that the warming, which is continuous, is happening so fast that thaw could arrive in some places by mid-century, he said.

“That’s something new, which we didn’t know, say, 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “Because of that, of course, all infrastructure related to oil and gas or other local communities will be affected by changes in permafrost.”

Areas that are particularly vulnerable, he said, are those rich in ice, including parts of northern Alaska and northwestern Canada.

“The consequences of thawing permafrost directly depend on how much ice is in permafrost. The more ice, the worse the situation. In Alaska and in northwest Canada, some regions have more than half of their volume as ice — actually, pure ice,” he said. When that ice thaws, the ground will subside by several meters, he said, “so, that’s a very serious situation.”

In the Brooks Range foothills of northern Alaska, there is “big belt of deposits” with up to 80 percent or 85 percent ice, and that is Alaska’s most vulnerable permafrost, Romanovsky said. The Dalton Highway, the sole road linking Prudhoe Bay-area oil fields to the rest of the state, passes through that belt.

The study found that in the long list of vulnerable manmade structures, railroads carry some of the highest risks for damage from permafrost thaw. Among those in peril are the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which connects China with Tibet, and 280 kilometers (174 miles) of Russia’s Obskaya-Bovanenkovo railway, which is operated by Gazprom and is the world’s northernmost rail line.

Melody Schreiber contributed reporting to this story.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.