Why Are There Increasing Problems With Construction in Permafrost Regions?

March 21, 2024

A new balance must be found for the development of infrastructure in permafrost regions. This balance must be achieved by preserving or creating conditions that are less sensitive to the thermal regime. For example, the ice content of permafrost is often important for stabilizing surface infrastructure and may be augmented by the use of thermosyphons or piling foundations (buildings built on elevated piles that are anchored in permafrost)161.

However, it is also crucial to consider other environmental factors when designing, building, and maintaining infrastructure. Failure to do so increases the susceptibility of infrastructure to climate warming and related thawing effects.

This is especially true of infrastructure that crosses thawed permafrost, such as roads and railways, which are particularly vulnerable to a range of damaging actions that can occur during a sudden change in the ground temperature regime, including permafrost thawing, surface heaving, thermal expansion, and avalanche propagation162.

In addition to the thaw-related hazard risks associated with permafrost degradation, infrastructure damage is also caused by a variety of other environmental changes. These include an increase in extreme events and slope instability, as well as warmer air temperatures and flows of thawing groundwater17.

These environmental changes may have already led to significant infrastructure damage in some circumpolar regions, and the risk of further disruption is expected to increase with anthropogenic warming. A recent study showed that 30-50% of critical infrastructure in the Arctic and high-altitude areas is located in domains that are projected to be prone to permafrost thaw by 2050, and this proportion will likely increase as the climate continues to warm.

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