Permafrost thaw places one-fifth of northern hemisphere at risk

Iqaluit, Canada, which is threatened by permafrost thaw. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Caroline O’Doherty

Half the buildings, roads and other infrastructure in the world’s cold regions will be at risk within 30 years because climate change is thawing the permafrost beneath them.

Scientists expect 30-50pc of critical infrastructure in the northern parts of Canada, Finland, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway and Russia to be at high risk by 2050.

Already they have found 80pc of buildings in some of Russia’s northern cities showing signs of damage, while an assessment of roads in a vast region covering Tibet and southwestern China found 30pc were affected.

The details are in a paper published in the latest edition of Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. The authors write: “The extent of observed infrastructure damage is substantial and is likely to increase with climate warming.”

They say the financial costs beyond 2050 could rise to tens of billions of dollars.

Dr Poul Christoffersen, glaciologist at the Scott Polar Research Institute, who commented on the paper, said much of the infrastructure in the world’s cold regions was not designed to withstand the instability of thawing permafrost.

"There is only so much engineering solutions can do, which means many millions of people simply live with the growing risk until the cost of doing so becomes unacceptably high,” he said.

“Thawing permafrost is weakening the integrity of slopes, posing a real risk for communities in mountain regions.

"In 2017, a large portion of a mountainside fell almost 1km into the sea in the Avannaata municipality in northern Greenland, killing four people.

“With permafrost covering one-fifth of all land masses in the northern hemisphere, my expectation is that the economic and social costs of permafrost thaw is going to be very high.”