Thawing permafrost soils endanger infrastructure, including natural gas imports

Updated Jan. 12, 2022, 8:51 a.m.

  • Due to global warming, more and more permafrost soils are thawing. This causes greenhouse gas emissions and further warming of the earth.
  • According to the researchers, there could be significant damage in northern regions by 2050 – and natural gas production could also be affected.

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Climate change is causing the permanently frozen ground to thaw faster and faster in the northern regions and some mountains. 30 to 50 percent of buildings and infrastructure in these areas are therefore threatened with damage of varying degrees of severity by 2050. This is the result of the review article by an international group of researchers led by Jan Hjort from the University of Oulu (Finland) in the journal “Nature Reviews Earth & Environment”. Part of the damage could occur in the Russian regions where the natural gas used in Germany and other European countries is produced.

In many areas far to the north, the water in the ground is in the form of ice. In summer, the top one to two meters partially thaw and freeze again in winter. Global warming means large parts of the permafrost soil is melting deeper and deeper. Because ice gives the ground additional support, the thaw of the ground becomes more and more unstable – depending on the type of ground and the amount of ice it contains – subsidence and landslides occur.

About 65 percent of Russian territory currently has permafrost soils; Russia is therefore particularly affected by the melting of underground ice. “At the start of the 21st century, many buildings exhibit permafrost deformations, from around ten percent of buildings in Yakutsk and Norilsk to 80 percent of buildings in Vorkuta,” the scientists write. Many roads, railways, airstrips and pipelines are also affected by the damage. This also applies to Canada, Alaska and Greenland as well as the Tibetan plateau.

Researchers estimate repair costs of around $ 7 billion

The researchers write that around seven billion US dollars are expected to be raised between 2020 and 2050 just to repair the damage caused to the existing road network in Russia by the thawing of the permafrost soil. An additional 200 to 500 million US dollars would be added each year to meet the objectives of the Russian transport strategy. Housing replacements would require an additional $ 500-600 million per year.

However, Hjort’s team also reports various technical measures to reduce or even prevent road damage. Some methods are aimed at dissipating heat from the basement, for example with soft rock infills, in which a natural air cycle is created which promotes warmer air upwards. Thermosiphons, thermal drains and very flat sidebands also have a similar effect. Other measures reduce heat absorption in summer, such as a higher road surface or its insulation, sun protection for the side areas or a highly reflective asphalt surface. However, all of this costs more than the usual construction methods.

Thawing permafrost soil: danger of greenhouse gas leaks

Thawing permafrost soils is at the center of science for a variety of reasons. Frozen soil stores a lot of carbon, some of which is released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Many pollutants could also be released in the coming decades, as recently shown by a study by the specialist journal “Nature Climate Change”. Because toxic or radioactive waste has contaminated the soil in some areas, which was previously not a problem due to the permafrost. Even old bacteria, some of which are resistant to antibiotics, can be brought back to life by thawing, as a few incidents have already shown. (dpa / tar)

In monetary terms, natural disasters caused much more damage in 2021 than in 2020. A reinsurer’s analyzes provide plausible evidence of a link to climate change.


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