Research Press Release

Environment: Arctic infrastructure under risk from permafrost thaw

Nature Communications

December 12, 2018

By 2050, approximately three quarters of the current population in the Northern Hemisphere permafrost area in the Arctic may be affected by damage to infrastructure associated with permafrost thaw, according to a paper in Nature Communications. The study suggests that most of the Arctic infrastructure will be at risk, even if the Paris Agreement targets are met.

The thaw of near-surface permafrost due to global warming may impair critical infrastructure, which could pose a serious threat to the utilization of natural resources and to the sustainable development of Arctic communities. Owing to the increasing economic and environmental relevance of the Arctic, information about the potential risk to infrastructure is needed.

Jan Hjort and colleagues conducted an infrastructure and hazard risk assessment in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost domain in the Arctic under projected climatic changes, and quantified engineering structures at risk by 2050. The authors found that most of the pan-Arctic population (approximately four million people) and 70% of transportation and industrial infrastructure is located in areas at high risk of permafrost thaw by the middle of the century, even if greenhouse gas emissions stabilise or are reduced. The results suggest that one-third of pan-Arctic infrastructure and 45% of the hydrocarbon extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are in regions where thaw-related ground instability could cause severe damage to the built environment.

The authors argue that their results demonstrate the need for detailed infrastructure risk assessments in a warming world.

doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07557-4

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