Warning that thawing permafrost poses ‘triple threat’ to planet

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NEWTOK, ALASKA - OCTOBER 11: Ice melts on tundra and thawing permafrost in Newtok, Alaska. The Ninglick River in the background is rapidly encrouching on the village. More than 70 feet of coastline erodes into the river each year. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Ice melts on tundra and thawing permafrost in Newtok, Alaska. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Thawing permafrost in the Arctic could release huge amounts of methane and CO2 - potentially thwarting efforts to slow climate change.

A series of papers published in the prestigious journal Nature highlighted the risks caused by thawing permafrost.

The study found that 70% of pipelines, roads and cities in permafrost areas could be damaged by thawing permafrost by the middle of the century.

The third part of the ‘triple threat’ comes from organic matter exposed from thawing ice which is fuelling wildfires.

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Permafrost – some of which is thousands of years old – covers a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s landmass, and contains twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere.

Blanketing a quarter of the northern hemisphere's land mass, permafrost contains twice the carbon currently in the atmosphere, and triple the amount emitted by human activity since 1850.

Researchers in one study warned that permafrost poses a serious threat to buildings, cities and pipelines in permafrost areas.

As much as 70% of today's infrastructure is in the risk area, when the warming of the ground caused by climate change is considered, according to Professor Jan Hjort of the Geography Research Unit at the University of Oulu.

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"About 500 Arctic villages and cities are located in areas where permafrost is expected to thaw by the middle of this century," explains Professor Miska Luoto, of the Department of Geosciences and Geography, The BioGeoClimate Modelling Lab, at the University of Helsinki.

Transport and transportation infrastructure, such as railways, as well as oil and natural gas pipelines, appear to be in the most vulnerable positions.

Relatively speaking, the greatest amount of infrastructure is in hazard areas in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, where temperatures of permafrost are already close to 0 degrees Celsius.

"We must consider that in these geographically very extensive analyses it has not been possible to take into account the 'heat load' caused by construction and buildings themselves, so the threats could easily become tangible in extensive damage to buildings before the end of this century.”

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The costs of infrastructure maintenance and repair related to the bearing capacity of permafrost could reach about £25 billion in the Arctic region by 2060.

Luoto said: "The fact that no corresponding cost estimates have been available from the extensive permafrost areas in China can also be seen as a drawback."

The review also puts forward ways to try to prepare for future threats. Also needed, in addition to numerous existing solutions of construction technology, are more precise forecasts of future changes in permafrost.

More detailed data and forecasts could enable better surveys of areas in danger and more detailed cost estimates.

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