Around 10-15 years
ago, when I was starting and finishing my PhD, permafrost started to
gain a lot of attention globally. This was an exciting time to be
studying permafrost processes. Scientists found that permafrost is no
longer very stable under the current rate of warming climate. Then
there came a new estimation of carbon stored in permafrost, which
surprised the world, as the new estimate was three times larger than
the previous estimate. Additionally, some scientists found large
potential methane emissions from permafrost thawing. The combined
story pointed to the direction that permafrost thawing could cause
additional warming to the climate due to release of large amounts of
greenhouse gases from accelerated soil organic matter decomposition.
Someone even said permafrost is ‘a ticking time-bomb’ to future
permafrost is getting attention with even more gloomy angle.
distributed widely in the Arctic. Unlike the Antarctic, people live
in the Arctic. It is loosely estimated that approximately 10 million
people live on permafrost. Maintaining this population and the
supporting industry will require infrastructure such as buildings,
factories, roads, railroads, ports, and airports. Unfortunately, some
of the infrastructure are built on top of rapidly changing
design and build infrastructure in the Arctic, they do put extra
consideration into harsh environmental conditions and even thawing of
permafrost. Infrastructures have their own lifetime and this lifetime
(~50 years) is often shorter than the time span of climate change
(~100 years). It had not been a huge problem until now, when climate
warming is accelerating permafrost thawing at a speed much faster
than expected. Recently, we are hearing more and more stories about
societal challenges related to permafrost degradation. Permafrost
thawing is causing damages to human infrastructure. One recent news
came from Norilsk, Russia. Permafrost thawing in this area caused
what is likely the worst oil spill of its kind in Russian Arctic,
because permafrost thaw weakened the support of an oil storage tank.
the current rate of permafrost degradation, we may be hearing this
kind of news more frequently in the near future.
A recent modeling
study (Schneider von Deimling et al. 2020) suggests that human
infrastructure such as roads may be accelerating permafrost
degradation. This is a highly meaningful result. Previously, we were
only concerned about climate warming affecting permafrost
degradation. But the results from this study suggests that the
infrastructure itself is also adding to the speed of permafrost
degradation. Now with this result, the lifetime of infrastructures
are no longer free from the timescale of climate change.
Even with these
risks under climate change, life in the Arctic must go on. This study
is a great example that in order to overcome these challenges, we
have to work together. Building engineers have to work together to
better understand the impacts of climate change on infrastructures.
The scientists have to work together with the Arctic communities to
inform future changes. The nations have to work together to help the
In October, we start
a project entitled ‘PRISM’ (Permafrost thaw RIsks to nature and
Society: Multidisciplinary efforts towards solving a
multi-dimensional problem) funded by the INTPART program within the
Research Council of Norway. PRISM
is a unique opportunity for multi-national and multi-disciplinary
collaboration ranging from observations, modeling, engineering,
social sciences, and users such as stakeholders and decision-makers
focused around the theme ‘permafrost thaw risks to nature and
will create collaborations across six countries and
China, Germany, Russia, and USA. Through this collaboration, NORCE
will facilitate leading academic environment in the topic of
permafrost thaw risks in nature and society.
Hanna Lee and Lei
Cai from NORCE Climate are co-authors in this new publication.
Deimling T., Lee H., Ingeman-Nielsen T., Westermann S., Romanovsky
V., Lamoureux S., Walker D.A., Chadburn S., Cai L., Trochim E.,
Nitzbon J., Jacobi S., Langer M.: Consequences of permafrost
degradation for Arctic infrastructure - bridging the model gap
between regional and engineering scales, The Cryosphere Discussion,
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2020-192. in review 2020.