The warming and thawing of ice-rich permafrost pose considerable threat to the integrity of polar and high-altitude infrastructure, in turn jeopardizing sustainable development. In this Review, we explore the extent and costs of observed and predicted infrastructure damage associated with permafrost degradation, and the methods available to mitigate such adverse consequences. Permafrost change imposes various threats to infrastructure, namely through warming, active layer thickening and thaw-related hazards such as thermokarst and mass wasting. These impacts, often linked to anthropogenic warming, are exacerbated through increased human activity. Observed infrastructure damage is substantial, with up to 80% of buildings in some Russian cities and ~30% of some road surfaces in the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau reporting damage. Under anthropogenic warming, infrastructure damage is projected to continue, with 30–50% of critical circumpolar infrastructure thought to be at high risk by 2050. Accordingly, permafrost degradation-related infrastructure costs could rise to tens of billions of US dollars by the second half of the century. Several mitigation techniques exist to alleviate these impacts, including convection embankments, thermosyphons and piling foundations, with proven success at preserving and cooling permafrost and stabilizing infrastructure. To be effective, however, better understanding is needed on the regions at high risk.
Operational infrastructure is critical for sustainable development of Arctic and high-altitude communities, but their integrity is jeopardized by degrading permafrost.
The extent of observed infrastructure damage is substantial (up to 60–80% of infrastructure elements) and is likely to increase with climate warming.
Nearly 70% of current infrastructure in the permafrost domain is in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost by 2050.
Engineering solutions are able to mitigate the effects of degrading permafrost, but their economic cost is often high.
Greater efforts are needed to quantify the economic impacts and occurrence of permafrost-related infrastructure failure.
Future development projects should conduct local-scale infrastructure risk assessments and apply mitigation measures to avoid detrimental impacts.
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J.H. acknowledges funding from the Academy of Finland (Grant 315519), D.S. from the National Science Foundation (grants 1545913, 2019691, 2022504 and 1558389) and Q.W. from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant 41690144). O. Karjalainen helped with the figures and O. Könönen with the management of references.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Ground with a temperature remaining at or below 0 °C for at least two consecutive years.
- Active layer
The layer of ground that is subject to annual thawing and freezing in areas underlain by permafrost.
Increase of permafrost temperature accompanied by melting of ground ice.
The process by which characteristic landforms result from the thawing of ice-rich permafrost or the melting of massive ice.
- Thermal erosion
The erosion of ice-bearing permafrost by the combined thermal and mechanical action of moving water.
- Ground ice
A general term referring to all types of ice contained in freezing and frozen ground.
- Bearing capacity
The maximum load a soil or rock, frozen or unfrozen, can support from an applied load, within a defined measure of accepted strain (movement due to loading).
The process by which two objects are bonded together by ice formed between them.
A layer or body of unfrozen ground occurring in a permafrost area due to a local anomaly in thermal, hydrological, hydrogeological or hydrochemical conditions.
- Mass wasting
Downslope movement of soil or rock on, or near, the Earth’s surface under the influence of gravity.
- Bearing strength
The ability of a soil, sediment or rock to support the direct application of a load or stress, either concentrated or diffused, measured in force.
- Frost jacking
Cumulative upward displacement of objects embedded in the ground, caused by frost action.
- Near-surface permafrost
Permafrost in the topmost ground layers (<10–15 m depth).
- Permafrost creep
The slow deformation that results from long-term application of a stress too small to produce failure in the permanently frozen material.
Slow downslope flow of saturated unfrozen earth materials.
- Retrogressive thaw slumps
Slope failure resulting from thawing of ice-rich permafrost.
- Active layer detachment slides
Slope failure in which the thawed or thawing portions of the active layer detach from the underlying frozen material.
- Ice wedge
A massive, generally wedge-shaped body with its apex pointing downward, composed of foliated or vertically banded ice.
An organic-rich permafrost with high ground ice content.
- Permafrost table
The upper boundary surface of permafrost.
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Hjort, J., Streletskiy, D., Doré, G. et al. Impacts of permafrost degradation on infrastructure. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 24–38 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00247-8
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