Arctic Permafrost Thaw Will Start Toppling Buildings Across Northern Hemisphere by 2050

Within the next two decades, infrastructure in countries across the Arctic circle—including the U.S., Canada and Russia—will begin to crumble as the frozen ground it is built on starts to thaw.

That is according to research published in the journal Nature in which scientists forecast potential hazards to infrastructure relating to permafrost thaw. In the paper, researchers found that three quarters of people living in permafrost areas—around four million people—will be affected by damage to buildings, roads and other structures in the region by 2050.

Read more: Arctic permafrost is leaking acid and dissolving the rocks beneath

Permafrost is a thick layer of soil that is permanently frozen. In some areas, the ground has been frozen for tens of thousands of years. However, as global temperatures start to rise, this frozen earth has started to thaw, creating huge problems for the people living on it. What was solid ground becomes soft, making the ground unstable and potentially leading to landslides and coastal erosion.

In 2016, scientists in Siberia warned that buildings would start to collapse from the mid 2020s as a result of the thaw. Meanwhile researchers at Columbia University recently warned that in some parts of Alaska, sinking cemeteries mean people are no longer able to bury the dead in the ground.

In the latest study, Jan Hjort and colleagues carried out a hazard risk assessment for the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere—an area covering about nine million square miles. They looked specifically at the damage to infrastructure that will take place under projected climate change scenarios. They looked at infrastructure that is "fundamental" to Arctic communities, including residential, transportation and industrial facilities.

Findings showed that the thawing permafrost will pose a significant threat to Arctic communities across the Northern Hemisphere by 2050. "We show that nearly four million people and 70 percent of current infrastructure in the permafrost domain are in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost," the team wrote.

"Our results demonstrate that one-third of pan-Arctic infrastructure and 45 percent of the hydrocarbon extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are in regions where thaw-related ground instability can cause severe damage to the built environment. Alarmingly, these figures are not reduced substantially even if the climate change targets of the Paris Agreement are reached."

permafrost thaw building
A private house north of Fairbanks is unevenly sinking into thawing ice-rich permafrost. Vladimir Romanovsky

In an interview with Newsweek, Hjort said damage to critical infrastructure could threaten the sustainable development of Arctic communities, as well as causing ecosystem disruption through things like oil spills. He said there are different adaptations that can be made to reduce or prevent thaw—such as insulation—and potential thaw can be considered during the construction of new infrastructure. "However, as we wrote in the paper: 'their economic cost may be prohibitive at regional scales,'" he said.

"Permafrost—and its thaw—is mainly controlled by climate conditions. [To prevent the permafrost thawing], we need to stop climate warming." Concluding, the researchers say a detailed infrastructure risk assessment is needed to understand how communities in permafrost areas will be affected as the planet warms.

However, Christopher Burn, professor of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University, Canada, said that "from a Canadian perspective, the paper does not tell us anything we don't already know, and in some ways is misleading."

He told Newsweek the part of the paper looking at Canada uses incorrect permafrost projections, while they use a statistical approach to predict ground temperature—which Burn says does not provide an accurate representation of risk.

"In Canada there are regions where the authors indicate there will be no risk (because permafrost will be gone), where I beg to disagree," he said, adding scientists there already know there will be "serious infrastructure issues in the next 30 years, even if climate change stops today.

"For the Canadian sector, I believe the model is a poor representation of what we shall be dealing with in the next 30 years," he continued. "The trouble is that many communities are placed in low-risk areas or no-risk areas, when I think this is wrong. Not because I wish to be sensational, but because of the physics of heat transfer in ground materials."

permafrost thaw road
A road in Finnish Lapland that is subsiding because of the thaw of ice-rich permafrost. Jan Hjort