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Permafrost thaw risks to nature and society

Permafrost thaw risks to nature and society


Published: 21.09.2020
Oppdatert: 09.08.2022

Hanna Lee

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 climate.

But recently, permafrost is getting attention with even more gloomy angle.

Permafrost is 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 permafrost.

When engineers 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.

Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Commission, Road damage in Dalton Highway Alaska (Joe Moore, USDA) / Coastal erosion in Shishmaref Alaska that led to rellocation of the village, Chapt5pic11, ,

Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Commission

Road damage in Dalton Highway Alaska (Joe Moore, USDA) / Coastal erosion in Shishmaref Alaska that led to rellocation of the village

Unfortunately, at 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 communities.

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 society’. PRISM will create collaborations across six countries and different disciplines: Norway, 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.

Schneider von 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.

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