In just one human generation, citizens of the far north could find themselves on shifting soils as the region’s permafrost thaws. Roads will slump. Buildings will buckle. Pipelines will become at risk of fracture. And in 2050, around three-fourths of the people of the permafrost could watch their infrastructure collapse, as what was once hard frozen ground turns into mud. All this could happen even if the world keeps the promise it made in Paris in 2015 and limits global average warming to just 1.5°C above the level for most of pre-industrial history.
In the last century, the world has already warmed by 1°C on average: the Arctic region has warmed at a far faster rate. At present rates of warming, driven by the profligate use of fossil fuels that raise the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the world is on course for an average warming of 3°C by 2100. Researchers from Finland, Norway, Russia and the US report in the journal Nature Communications that they mapped, on a scale of a kilometre, the buildings, installations, roads and other infrastructure of the permafrost world: a region defined as that where the ground is frozen solid, summer and winter, for at least two consecutive years. More than 4 million people live in this pan-Arctic landscape: at least 3.6 million of them, and 70% of their transportation and industrial infrastructure, are at risk.