How is permafrost degradation affecting infrastructure?

Published: 2018
Product type: Science Brief
Categories: Permafrost

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Degradation of permafrost—perennially frozen ground that often contains subsurface ice—makes it difficult to build and maintain infrastructure including roads, buildings, pipelines, and airports. As ground ice melts, soils shift and collapse making the ground unstable thus jeopardizing infrastructure at the surface. Factors that contribute to permafrost thaw include thermal disruption (i.e. increase in heat) caused by both the construction of infrastructure itself as well as by a warming climate. Improved engineering methods and standards are needed to alleviate these effects.

Why it matters

Building and maintaining infrastructure in permafrost environments is costly due to specialized design requirements that are needed to prevent or mitigate thaw caused by the presence of infrastructure. Planning infrastructure on permafrost requires knowledge about the presence of ground ice: how much there is, and where it is located. The interactions between temperature, water, and ice are the most important environmental factors for predicting how infrastructure will perform in current and future environments. In a climate that is projected to become warmer and wetter, changes in these critical factors need to be integrated in the planning and design of resilient infrastructure.

Data on infrastructure, climate, permafrost temperature, ground ice distribution, and adaptive practices are currently collected by a wide variety of governmental agencies and other groups. Coordination among these groups is necessary to assess the current effects of permafrost degradation on infrastructure in a repeatable manner. This would help to develop better planning capacity and be able to predict the best approaches to provide essential community services as well as wider stakeholder needs.