Permafrost thaw expected to impose heavy costs across Arctic on roads, airport runways
A new study calculates billions of dollars of impacts by midcentury, but it also finds that slowing climate change will make a big difference in total costs
Road damage from permafrost thaw is seen in Fairbanks on July 23, 2020. The site, Goldstream Road, has been repaired in the past, but thaw problems persist. Fixes to roads in Fairbanks and other permafrost regions of Alaska are expected to mount into the billions by midcentury, according to a new study. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Fixing permafrost-thaw damage to roads, buildings, airports and railroads across the Arctic is expected to cost $276 billion by midcentury if carbon emissions and climate trends continue on their current trajectory, according to a new study by scientists at George Washington University.
Those costs can be reduced to $182 billion if warming is slowed in line with the goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, said the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The findings should catch the attention of government and business officials who might otherwise overlook climate science, said lead author Dmitry Streletskiy, an associate professor of geography and international affairs.
Streletskiy has been studying permafrost for two decades, traveling to sites like Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community, where he said thaw damage is particularly striking. He has helped produce several scientific reports about the subject, including a study published a year ago in the journal Nature that found that permafrost degradation will put 30% to 50% of critical circumpolar infrastructure at risk by 2050.
Getting the message out beyond scientists, however, can be a challenge, he said “It doesn’t ring a bell with a particular number of stakeholders, because really, they operate with dollar signs,” said Streletskiy, who works at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
That is why he and his research partners focused on the hard costs of softened permafrost.
Streletskiy considers the cost estimates to be an early draft that can be refined in the future. “My hope is that a lot of folks can do much better,” he said.
While the bulk of the analyzed at-risk infrastructure is in Russia, the biggest Arctic nation, significant amounts are in Alaska – as are significant expected costs.
Overall, the cost of replacing thaw-damaged sections of roads, airport runways and railroad in Alaska is expected to total $24.5 billion by midcentury under the current climate trajectory and $14.16 billion under a reduced-emissions scenario, according to the study’s mean estimates. Replacing thaw-damaged buildings, both public and private structures, adds about another $3 billion by midcentury, according to the study.
For roads, the networks most vulnerable are around Utqiagvik and Deadhorse on the North Slope, where permafrost is continuous, and Fairbanks in the Interior, where permafrost is discontinuous. At current climate trends, the cost to replace thaw-damaged road sections will be over $19 billion by midcentury, according to the mean estimate. With cuts to emissions in line with the Paris agreement, that cost would be reduced to about $10 billion, according to the study.
For Alaska airports, costs to replace sunken sections of runway will hit $3.4 billion by midcentury if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their present pace, according to the study’s mean estimate. Cuts to emissions in line with the Paris Agreement would reduce that cost to about $220 million, according to the study’s mean estimates.
Repairs of thaw-damaged railroad sections are expected to cost about $2 billion under current climate trajectory but about $1 billion if emissions are reduced, the study said.
The new findings complement an earlier study of the climate change costs to public infrastructure in Alaska. That 2017 study, by scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and other institutions, put the cost of repairs at $32 billion by 2030 and $56 billion by 2080. It calculated damages from a variety of climate-change impacts, including flooding and erosion as well as permafrost thaw, and it also extended to pipelines, which are not included in the new study.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is already tallying some of the costs imposed by climate change. By 2013, the department estimated, road-maintenance costs caused by thawing permafrost had reached $11 million a year in the state’s northern district alone. The department is now employing a variety of technical fixes to try to preserve the freeze in the ground and keep those costs under control.
Streletskiy said addressing permafrost damage will require a variety of responses beyond long-term reductions in emissions and climate change. It also requires shorter-term improvements to planning, design, maintenance and training, he said. For example, managers should avoid dumping large amounts of plowed snow or allowing large amounts of water runoff onto permafrost terrain, he said, as deep snow and water flow can lead to faster thaw.
“Not paying attention to these problems does make it worse,” he said.
And the first step to addressing a problem is understanding it, he said: “Without knowing what the problem is, there is no solution.”
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