16 Sep 2020

16 Sep 2020

Review status: a revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Consequences of permafrost degradation for Arctic infrastructure – bridging the model gap between regional and engineering scales

Thomas Schneider von Deimling1,2, Hanna Lee3, Thomas Ingeman-Nielsen4, Sebastian Westermann5, Vladimir Romanovsky6, Scott Lamoureux7, Donald A. Walker8, Sarah Chadburn9, Lei Cai3, Erin Trochim6, Jan Nitzbon1,2, Stephan Jacobi1, and Moritz Langer1,2 Thomas Schneider von Deimling et al.
  • 1Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, 14473 Potsdam Germany
  • 2Humboldt University of Berlin, Geography Department, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
  • 3NORCE Norwegian Research Centre, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway
  • 4Department of Civil Engineering, Technical University of Denmark, 2800 Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark
  • 5University of Oslo, Department of Geosciences, Sem Sælands vei 1, 0316 Oslo, Norway
  • 6University of Alaska Fairbanks, International Arctic Research Center, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
  • 7Queen's University, Department of Geography and Planning, Kingston, ON K7L 3N6, Canada
  • 8University of Alaska Fairbanks, Institute of Arctic Biology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
  • 9University of Exeter, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK

Abstract. Infrastructure built on perennially frozen ice-rich ground relies heavily on thermally stable subsurface conditions. Climate warming-induced deepening of ground thaw puts such infrastructure at risk of failure. For better assessing the risk of large-scale future damage to Arctic infrastructure, improved strategies for model-based approaches are urgently needed. We used the laterally-coupled one-dimensional heat conduction model CryoGrid3 to simulate permafrost degradation affected by linear infrastructure. We present a case study of a gravel road built on continuous permafrost (Dalton highway, Alaska) and forced our model under historical and strong future warming conditions (following the RCP8.5 scenario). As expected, the presence of a gravel road in the model leads to higher net heat flux entering the ground compared to a reference run without infrastructure, and thus a higher rate of thaw. Further, our results suggest that road failure is likely a consequence of lateral destabilization due to talik formation in the ground beside the road, rather than a direct consequence of a top-down thawing and deepening of the active layer below the road centre. In line with previous studies, we identify enhanced snow accumulation and ponding (both a consequence of infrastructure presence) as key factors for increased soil temperatures and road degradation. Using differing horizontal model resolutions we show that it is possible to capture these key factors and their impact on thawing dynamics with a low number of lateral model units, underlining the potential of our model approach for use in pan-arctic risk assessments.

Our results suggest a general two-phase behaviour of permafrost degradation: an initial phase of slow and gradual thaw, followed by a strong increase in thawing rates after exceedance of a critical ground warming. The timing of this transition and the magnitude of thaw rate acceleration differ strongly between undisturbed tundra and infrastructure-affected permafrost ground. Our model results suggest that current model-based approaches which do not explicitly take into account infrastructure in their designs are likely to strongly underestimate the timing of future Arctic infrastructure failure.

By using a laterally-coupled one-dimensional model to simulate linear infrastructure, we infer results in line with outcomes from more complex 2D- and 3D-models, but our model's computational efficiency allows us to account for long-term climate change impacts on infrastructure from permafrost degradation. Our model simulations underline that it is crucial to consider climate warming when planning and constructing infrastructure on permafrost as a transition from a stable to a highly unstable state can well occur within the service life time (about 30 years) of such a construction. Such a transition can even be triggered in the coming decade by climate change for infrastructure built on high northern latitude continuous permafrost that displays cold and relatively stable conditions today.

Thomas Schneider von Deimling et al.

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Thomas Schneider von Deimling et al.

Data sets

Soilsurface temperatures in 2 cm depth between summer 2018 and 2019 with iButton-sensors in the North Slope of Alaska (USA), around Churchill (Canada) and the region of Illirney and Lena-Viluy (Russia) Moritz Langer, Soraya Kaiser, Simone Maria Stuenzi, Thomas Schneider von Deimling, Alexander Oehme, and Stephan Jacobi

Video supplement

Simulation of subground temperatures under a gravel road on permafrost Thomas Schneider von Deimling and Stephan Jacobi

Thomas Schneider von Deimling et al.


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Short summary
Climate warming puts infrastructure built on permafrost at risk of failure. There is a growing need for appropriate model-based risk assessments. Here we present a modelling study and show an exemplary case of how a gravel road in a cold permafrost environment in Alaska might suffer from degrading permafrost under a scenario of intense climate warming. We use this case study to discuss the broader-scale applicability of our model for simulating future Arctic infrastructure failure.