Collapsing buildings, crumbling roads, and sinkholes: Shocking study reveals how millions of people in the Arctic will be at risk from thawing permafrost – and the effects have already begun

  • New study found thawing permafrost will put about 3.6 million people at risk
  • Ground instability could cause severe damage to pan-Arctic infrastructure
  • Railways are most at risk, along with residences, roadways, and airports 
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Thawing permafrost will soon pose substantial risks to nearly four million people living in the Arctic.

An alarming new study has found that by 2050, nearly three quarters of the population living within the Northern Hemisphere permafrost area may be affected by infrastructure damage resulting from thaws.

In addition to millions of people, the high risk areas are home to roughly 70 percent of the region’s transportation and industrial infrastructure.

Already, thawing permafrost has caused sinkholes to open up, destabilized buildings, and damaged roadways throughout the Arctic. 

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Thawing permafrost will soon pose substantial risks to nearly four million people living in the Arctic. The effects can already be seen in many areas; above, an apartment building in Chersky, Russia partially destroyed by thawing permafrost under one of its section is shown

According to the new study, published to the journal Nature Communications, Arctic communities will face these risks even if we meet the climate targets put in place by the Paris Agreement.

The hazard potential is not uniform across the Arctic; instead, the researchers say the central Asian mountainous regions and Eurasia will likely be hit harder than parts of North America when considering permafrost alone.

But, the team notes that there are many factors that contribute to the risks, which balances out some of the geographical differences.

All in all, 

‘The regions associated with the highest hazard are in the thaw-unstable zone characterized by relatively high ground-ice content and thick deposits of frost-susceptible sediments, as well as increased potential for permafrost thaw,’ the researchers explain in the paper.

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Worryingly, this includes a population of nearly a million people and 25-45% of existing infrastructure that could feel the effects by mid-century.

Ground instability caused by the thawing permafrost will especially be a concern for railways, the experts say.


The experts warn at least one-third of the pan-Arctic infrastructure will likely be facing severe damage in the years to come. A close-up of the hazard map is shown above

Nearly 300 miles (470 kilometers) of the Qinghai–Tibet Railway runs through areas at risk of thaw, while about 170 miles of the Obskaya−Bovanenkovo railway – the world’s northern-most railway – falls within this zone.

The high hazard zone also includes ‘more than 36,000 buildings, 13,000km of roads, and 100 airports,’ the researchers say.

‘Moreover, 45% of the globally important oil and natural gas production fields in the Russian Arctic are located in areas with high hazard potential because of adverse ground conditions and thaw of near-surface permafrost by 2050.’

According to the researchers, the findings highlight the growing importance of infrastructure risk assessments as global temperatures rise.


The hazard potential is not uniform across the Arctic, with some areas expected to be hit harder than others. The house above, in Fairbanks, can be seen sinking into the thawing permafrost


In addition to millions of people, the high risk areas are home to roughly 70 percent of the region’s transportation and industrial infrastructure. Pictured, a road crossing permafrost area in Finnish Lapland had to be repaired after it began subsiding (left)

WHAT IS PERMAFROST AND WHAT HAPPENS IF IT MELTS?

Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer below the Earth’s surface found in Arctic regions such as Alaska, Siberia and Canada.

It typically consists of soil, gravel and sand bound together by ice, and is classified as ground that has remained below 0°C (32°F) for at least two years.

It is estimated 1,500 billion tons of carbon is stored in the world’s permafrost – more than twice the amount found in the atmosphere.

The carbon comes in the form of ancient vegetation and soil that has remained frozen for millennia.

If global warming were to melt the world’s permafrost, it could release thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. 

Because some permafrost regions have stayed frozen for thousands of years, it is of particular interest for scientists.

Ancient remains found in permafrost are among the most complete ever found because the ice stops organic matter from decomposing.

A number of 2,500-year-old bodies buried in Siberia by a group of nomads known as the Scythians have been found with their tattooed skin still intact.

A baby mammoth corpse uncovered on Russia’s Arctic coast in 2010 still sported clumps of its hair despite being more than 39,000 years old.

Permafrost is also used in the study of Earth’s geological history as soil and minerals buried deep in Arctic regions for thousands of years can be dug up and studied today.

Even if we reach the Paris Agreement targets, the study found many of the risks identified are ‘not reduced substantially.’

The experts warn at least one-third of the pan-Arctic infrastructure will likely be facing the threat of severe damage in the years to come.

‘Much more needs to be done to prepare Alaska and Alaskans for the adverse consequences of coming changes in permafrost and climate,’ says Vladimir Romanovsky, a scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

And, the researcher adds, ‘we are dealing already, and will be dealing even more in the near future with this reality.’ 

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