With how quickly the permafrost is thawing, we could see significant damage to the infrastructure built on the permafrost very soon. Here’s what the damage could look like for those regions and some solutions that engineers are using to minimize the damage.
70% of Infrastructure Could Be at Risk
The extent of the damage will be widespread in regions with permafrost. Around 70% of the current infrastructure in permafrost regions is areas that are at a high risk for thawing by 2050. This will significantly impact around 500 Arctic villages and cities. 30-50% of critical circumpolar infrastructure will likely be at high risk of damage by 2050.
Some researchers estimate that this timeline could be too conservative. Many of the studies done aren’t able to consider the “heat load” that comes from the construction and the buildings. This extra heat load to the permafrost from the construction activities and the heat from the building could mean significant thawing and damage before 2050.
Some of the most vulnerable infrastructure will be transportation infrastructure: railways, roads, and oil and natural gas pipelines. Damage to these could severely impact communities cutting off supplies and aid.
Permafrost thaw is already causing widespread damage. In some areas the damage is estimated to be as high as 80 percent of structures while in others it is around 10 percent.
Experts estimate that the cost of the damage from the thawing permafrost could reach 30 billion euros by 2060, with 20 billion euros of that damage attributed to Russia.
However, another study done in Russia found the total potential damage may reach up to US$ 132 billion. There isn’t a lot of certainty in these estimates because of so many changing variables.
Building Design Solutions
We might think of Permafrost as something that is supposed to remain frozen forever. This isn’t actually the case. The actual definition for permafrost is any earth material that doesn’t go above 32 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two years in a row.
The ideal when building on permafrost is to collect temperature data on the permafrost over a whole year. This ideal is hardly ever possible.
Without this data, engineers have to guess if the permafrost is thaw stable – meaning the ground won’t heave, slough, or creep when thawed. If it is thaw stable, then normal construction methods and materials can be used.
While a changing climate is responsible for a large portion of the damage, especially for transportation infrastructure, poorly designed buildings also play a role. If the building isn’t designed or maintained well, it could leak heat into the permafrost and cause thawing.
To prevent thawing there are several approaches engineers can use, like elevating the structure or using passive refrigeration systems. These systems use the natural properties or gasses and liquids to collect and remove heat from the surface.
Some regions are also using active refrigeration systems to these passive systems. This requires adding hundreds of feet of plastic piping under a foundation to pass a fluid through to collect and deposit that heat elsewhere.
As for the damage from the warming climate? That is a problem with much more complex solutions. For now, engineers in arctic areas are focused on minimizing the damage from the changes that are sure to come.