Arctic Climate Change
6. How will settlements and infrastructures be affected by Arctic warming?
- 6.1 How will coastal communities be affected?
- 6.2 How will changes in sea ice affect marine transport?
- 6.3 How will infrastructures be affected by the thawing ground?
6.1 How will coastal communities be affected?
Coastal communities face increasing exposure to storms
Many coastal communities and facilities face increasing exposure to storms.
Rising temperatures are already changing the Arctic coastline
and more drastic changes are expected over the coming century.
Reduced sea ice allows
stronger waves to form, increasing shore erosion. This problem
will be worsened by thawing
permafrost and rising sea
levels. All around the world, higher sea levels are likely to
cause flooding of marshes and coastal plains, accelerate beach
erosion, and force salt water into bays, rivers, and
As warming begins to take its toll on Arctic coastlines, some
towns and industrial facilities are already suffering severe
damage and facing relocation.
- In the Alaskan village of Nelson Lagoon, break walls
were built to protect the shore from storms. With increasing
temperatures shore ice has melted and thes protective walls
have repeatedly been destroyed by increasingly violent
coastal storms. The pipeline that provides drinking water
for the village was also at risk when storm waves washed
away the soil covering it.
- Shishmaref, a village on an island off the coast of
northern Alaska, is facing the prospect of evacuation.
Rising temperatures have reduced
sea ice and melted the
making the coast
vulnerable to erosion
by storms that threaten homes, the water system, and other
infrastructure, as well as access to hunting grounds.
- Tuktoyaktuk, is a major port in the western Canadian
Arctic and the only permanent settlement on the low-lying
Beaufort Sea coast. Erosion in and around Tuktoyaktuk
threatens cultural and archeological sites and has already
forced the abandonment of an elementary school, housing, and
other buildings. As warming continues and sea-level rise
accelerates, the site could ultimately become uninhabitable.
- The construction of an oil storage facility at
Varandei, a barrier island in the Pechora Sea, damaged the
dunes and beaches, accelerating the natural coastal erosion
and making the site more vulnerable to storms and rising sea
levels. This illustrates how sites that are already affected
by human activity are often more vulnerable to the impacts
6.2 How will changes in sea ice affect marine transport?
Reduced sea ice is very likely to increase marine transport and access to resources.
Over the past 50 years, the area of Arctic sea-ice has
declined and more recently the ice thickness has decreased by 10
to 15%. Observed trends enable the opening of new shipping
routes around the margins of the Arctic Basin and a longer
period during which shipping is feasible (when the extent of
sea ice in a given location
is less than 50%). This could have significantly facilitate
transportation and access to natural resources.
The opening of historically closed passages raises questions
regarding sovereignty over shipping routes and seabed resources,
and regarding security and safety. Commercial fishing, hunting
of marine wildlife by indigenous people, tourism and shipping
all compete for use of the narrow straits of these waterways.
Moreover, these are also the preferred routes for marine mammal
Increased marine access has implications for national and
regional governments which will be called upon for services such
as icebreaking, ice charting and forecasting as well emergency
preparedness. Ships themselves will have to be built to higher
(and more expensive) standards to ensure safety in ice-laden
However, recent changes suggest that actual conditions will in
fact be harder to predict which will make planning for regular
sea transport very difficult, and may restrict the use of the
new shipping routes. The amount of
sea ice and icebergs
drifting into the
Northwest Passage is
limited by “ice bridges” that block northern channels and
straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. As warming causes
the melting and weakening of these ‘ice bridges’ more ice and
icebergs could drift into the transport routes of the Northwest
Passage, presenting additional hazards to navigation.
Increased access to shipping routes and resources entails an
increased risk of environmental degradation caused by these
activities. A recent study suggests that oil spills and other
industrial accidents could have serious, long-lasting effects in
a high-latitude, cold ocean environment.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker slammed into a reef while
maneuvering to avoid ice in the shipping lanes and poured 42
million liters (11 million gallons) of crude oil into Alaska's
Prince William Sound. The spill was the worst tanker disaster
ever in U.S. waters, killing at least 250 000 seabirds and
thousands of marine mammals. It forced the closure of commercial
fishing grounds and areas traditionally used to gather wild
foods. Though some scientists’ predicted a rapid environmental
recovery, small patches of oil remain and continue to cause
problems for fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
Despite preventive measures such as improved boat-building
standards, and better port facilities and operating procedures,
oil spills are still anticipated. Spill response operations are
more complex and demanding in ice-covered waters, and effective
response strategies have yet to be developed.
6.3 How will infrastructures be affected by the thawing ground?
Thawing ground will disrupt transportation, buildings and other infrastructure
Arctic land is generally more accessible in winter, when the
tundra is frozen and ice
roads and bridges are available. In summer, when the top layer
of permafrost thaws and the
terrain is boggy, the transport of food and other raw materials
over land can be difficult. Land transportation routes are thus
likely to be affected by changing climate. Increased
precipitation can cause landslides and rising temperatures can
shorten the season during which ice roads can be used.
Travel on the Alaskan
tundra is now only possible
during 100 days per year compared to over 200 days thirty years
ago. This results in a 50% reduction in the time period where
oil and gas exploration and extraction equipment can be used.
The timber industry also depends on frozen ground and rivers and
transporting wood is increasingly difficult.
Increasing temperatures pose significant engineering
challenges to infrastructure built on
permafrost, such as
buildings and industrial facilities. As a result of changing
soil temperatures and more extensive melting and refreezing, new
construction will require deeper foundations and thicker
insulation, which entail greater costs.
In northern Russia, damage to railway lines, airport runways,
and oil and gas pipelines due to thawing
permafrost is now more
frequent. Future thawing might weaken open pit mine walls, and
lead to the release of
contaminants from mine
tailing disposal facilities into the
Building damaged due to permafrost thawing in Russia
Complete thawing of
permafrost, which would
eventually make the construction environment more predictable,
is expected to take centuries.
Important and complex interactions exist between climate
induced changes in
permafrost and in
- Vegetation contributes to insulating and maintaining
disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks due to
warming could thus lead to further degradation of the
- Certain tree
black spruce) need
ice-rich permafrost to be stably rooted. Thawing of the
ground can lead to severe leaning or toppling of trees and
undermine their growth.
- Many shallow streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands in the
Arctic hold water because of surrounding permafrost. Loss of
permafrost may result in these waters bodies disappearing as
water drains into the ground.
- Elsewhere, collapse of ground surfaces due to thawing
permafrost could increase the formation of wetlands, ponds,
and drainage networks while increasing sediment transport
and deposition, with significant impacts on aquatic life.
especially important since these can either absorb or emit
carbon, depending on specific temperature and water level
conditions. In western Canada, a northward shift of the
southern boundary of peatlands (by 200 to 300 km) is
expected as well as a significant change in their structure
and vegetation. However, the net impact on
climate change is
difficult to predict.