Melting permafrost and negative impacts on construction
El permafrost It exists widely in the arctic region and in mountain ranges, in places such as the Tibetan Plateau. Both the construction itself and a warming climate cause permafrost to thaw, which in turn threatens both existing infrastructure and future construction projects.
In the literature review, which covered the permafrost area of the entire northern hemisphere, it was observed that the proportion of damaged structures in the entire building stock ranged from less than 10 percent to a maximum of 80 percent. Russia bore most of the damage, while on the Tibetan Plateau and in parts of Canada, damage was around 30 percent.
“According to published research, damage was less in European permafrost area such as the Alps and Svalbardsays Professor Jan Hjort of the Geographical Research Unit at the University of Oulu.
Forecasts Reveal Rising Damage and Costs
Up to 70 percent of current infrastructure is in the risk area, if the warming of the soil caused by climate change is considered. “About 500 Arctic towns and cities are located in areas where permafrost is expected to thaw by the middle of this century.“, explains Professor Miska Luoto of the Department of Geosciences and Geography, The BioGeoClimate Modeling Labat the University of Helsinki.
Transport infrastructure, such as railways, as well as oil and gas pipelines, seem to be in the most vulnerable positions. In relative terms, the largest amount of infrastructure is in dangerous areas in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, where permafrost temperatures are already close to 0°C.
“We must consider that in these very extensive geographical analyzes it has not been possible to take into account the ‘heat load’ caused by the construction and the buildings themselves, so the threats could easily become tangible in extensive damage to buildings before the end of this century. “, dice Jan Hjort.
Infrastructure maintenance and repair costs related to the carrying capacity of permafrost could reach around €30 billion in the Arctic region by 2060. In Russia alone, the costs could exceed €20 billion. However, the estimates were considered to contain a large amount of uncertainty caused by the data. “The fact that no corresponding cost estimates are available for the extensive permafrost areas in China can also be seen as a drawback.“, agrega Miska Luoto.
The review also proposes ways to try to prepare for future threats. In addition to the many existing building technology solutions, there is also a need for more accurate forecasts of future permafrost changes.
More detailed data and forecasts could allow for better studies of areas at risk and more detailed cost estimates. In addition, a better dialogue between researchers, planners, builders, decision-makers and other actors in the permafrost area was considered important in the search for a more sustainable future.
Impacts of permafrost degradation on infrastructure. Jan Hjort, Dmitry Streletskiy, Guy Doré, Qingbai Wu, Kevin Bjella & Miska Luoto. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment volume 3, pages24–38 (2022).