The melting of permafrost can destroy one-third of the entire Arctic infrastructure, affecting up to 4 million people


A private home north of Fairbanks is plunging into ice-cold thawing.
Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky / University of Alaska

All the glue that has united the Arctic for millennia is being dissolved by climate change, down to the ground beneath the feet of millions of people.

Rising temperatures are melting the frozen soil in an alarming clip with the visible changes before our eyes today. But the future promises even more dramatic change, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications. As the frozen soil turns into trash, it can result in millions of people without homes or the infrastructure that makes life in one of Earth's most hostile environments possible. What is even more disconcerting is that, even if the world drastically reduces carbon emissions, these changes are basically blocked.

The new findings provide what the authors call "an unprecedented spatial resolution," which shows how the melting of frozen soil, known as permafrost, will affect the infrastructure. As the permafrost melts, it essentially transforms the previously firm soil into a mud of soil and water. Communities in the Arctic are already dealing with the impacts of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution. Infrastructure is collapsing or at risk, as are traditional forms of life.

To see what the future holds for the permafrost region, the authors superimposed data on where permafrost deposits exist in the Arctic with infrastructure and settlements. They then analyzed a variety of climatic scenarios to see how much the surface layer of permafrost should melt in the middle of the century, all at a resolution of 1 kilometer.

The results show that 70 percent of the infrastructure in the permafrost region – equivalent to one-third of the Arctic's total infrastructure – lies on land with high permafrost melting potential by the middle of the century. This includes railroads, residences and, ironically, the oil and gas infrastructure that is responsible for sending fossil-fuels to the market. Almost 4 million people call the high-risk regions home. If the infrastructure is not adapted to the fusion scenario, it may force these people to migrate to areas with more solid terrain.

A map of low, moderate and high risk permafrost areas will melt.
Image: Hjort, et al., 2018

The worst impacts will be in Russia and northern Europe, places that depend particularly on the permafrost region. David Titley, director of Penn State's Center for Weather and Climate Risk Solutions, told Earther in an e-mail that about 20 percent of Russia's population and its GDP come from the northern Arctic Circle "for some big accounts to arrive. "

What is most distressing in the study is that this is basically due to the warming already caught up in the climate system. As the atmosphere takes so long to reach equilibrium with all the new carbon dioxide humans have added, the planet would continue to heat for decades, even if all carbon emissions would stop tomorrow. These findings show that humans have already disrupted the Arctic and point to the need to adapt to these changes as soon as possible.

At the same time, the study shows that reducing emissions could now bring significant benefits by the end of the century, noting that the Paris Accord's goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius "could stabilize the risks to infrastructure after the mid-century . .

"[This is] another study confirms the overwhelming evidence that rapidly changing climate is affecting all facets of the globe and all aspects of human civilization, "said Titley. "I like to say that this is part of the carbon tax we are being forced to pay, whether you believe it, climate change or not. And p.s., ice does not care if you accept science or think it's all a hoax – it just melts. "


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