Land Covered by Permafrost

Land Covered by Permafrost

Source: Brown, J., O. Ferrians, J. A. Heginbottom, and E. Melnikov (2002) Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground-Ice Conditions, Version 2. Boulder, Colorado USA. NSIDC: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Due to its geographical attributes northern areas have unique constraints on the development and operation of their transport infrastructures. One of the most salient concerns permafrost, since it impacts the construction, cost, and maintenance of every type of transport infrastructure. Permafrost is perennially frozen ground that is associated with subsurface ice. As this ice moves, thaws, and collapses, the surrounding ground becomes unstable, undermining the integrity of any infrastructure built on top.

Permafrost can be impacted by thermal disruptions related by the construction or the long-term presence of infrastructure as well as climate change. Building transport infrastructure over permafrost substantially increases costs because of the requirements to mitigate the potential thawing effects. This mitigation can take two forms. The first is to design infrastructure that would prevent thawing, namely through forms of insulation. The second is to design infrastructure able to handle destabilization caused by permafrost.

The majority of the permafrost is found in the northern hemisphere, covering the northern half of Canada, Siberia, Mongolia, and the Tibetan plateau. There is limited permafrost in the southern hemisphere with most of the permafrost areas found in the high altitude Andes, in the southern tip of South America and in New Zealand. The growing interest in the extraction of Arctic resources has incited the development of transportation infrastructures to access them. The additional costs, as well as the risk of climate change, may undermine their economic potential.