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Impacts on infrastructure

This article describes the impacts of thawing permafrost on northern infrastructure.
A corner of a building sits temporarily propped up out of a large puddle of meltwater.
© Woodwell Climate Research Center

3.6 million people currently live in areas at risk of infrastructure damage due to climate hazards caused by permafrost thaw.

As warming causes once-frozen permafrost to thaw, the ground can fracture and collapse, exacerbating flooding and erosion, threatening critical infrastructure, and creating an urgent human rights crisis as Indigenous communities face difficult decisions about whether and how they can continue to live on their ancestral homelands.

The threat that climate-induced thawing poses to essential infrastructure is a major concern. When built properly, structures sitting atop permafrost can be sturdy and stable. However, it’s more expensive to build on permafrost—both due to the extra cost of shipping materials, like concrete, to remote areas in the north, and the type of equipment needed for construction. When the climate that sustains permafrost begins to change, all of that infrastructure can become compromised.[1]

Photo by: Sue Natali
Nunapitchuk, Alaska. Photo by: Sue Natali

It’s essential that the foundations of buildings extend below the soil active layer to maintain structural integrity. Otherwise, buildings on permafrost can fracture and be torn apart as the earth underneath thaws and freezes, destroying entire structures that may have once been secure. Heat that is given off from modern structures and seeps into the ground below can cause the frozen ground to thaw—further complicating the process of building on permafrost. Specific technology has to be installed to pump out heat while still allowing the interior to maintain its warmth.[1]

Nunapitchuk, Alaska. Photo by: Sue Natali

Maps of permafrost’s extent influence how buildings, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure are designed and built. All structures that sit on permafrost are consistently vulnerable to a warming climate, and require significant financial investments in maintenance and repair costs, especially to guarantee the safety of major infrastructure like roads, airports, and pipelines.[2] $5.5 billion worth of Alaskan infrastructure is expected to be damaged as a result of climate change this century.[3]

Arctic residents have long adapted to lifestyles that depend on permafrost. For generations, Alaska Natives have used ice cellars to store their food from sustenance hunting. These ice cellars have been thawing along with the permafrost and becoming increasingly unreliable for food storage, threatening Indigenous food sovereignty.[4]

What’s happening in Nunapitchuk, Alaska

Nunapitchuk, Alaska. Photo by: Sue Natali

In Nunapitchuk, Alaska, a crucial piece of water infrastructure is tilting and showing signs of imminent collapse. As of August 2022, the building residents rely on for laundry and water treatment is at risk of sinking into the thawing earth beneath the structure’s foundation. The building serves as the village’s only source of running water that is used for washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and flushing toilets. Residents have been traveling 10-15 minutes by boat to a nearby village to do laundry because the facility was closed down as a precaution.[5]

While mitigation efforts are underway to save the water treatment facility, a larger issue looms for Nunapitchuk. The permafrost the village sits on continues to thaw, making the landscape increasingly uninhabitable. Many community members know that the permafrost is thawing faster than the town can adapt. However, even though discussions about relocation are happening, there aren’t currently any definitive plans in place to make that happen.[5]


1Unstable Ground. 2021. The Frozen Ground of the Far North is Thawing.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 August 2022].

2National Snow and Ice Data Center. n.d. Why Frozen Ground Matters. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 August 2022].

3Melvin A, Larsen P, Boehlert B, Neumann J, Chinowsky P, Espinet X et al. Climate change damages to Alaska public infrastructure and the economics of proactive adaptation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2016 [cited 25 August 2022];114(2). Available from:

4Maslakov, A., Sotnikova, K., Gribovskii, G. and Evlanov, D., 2022. Thermal Simulation of Ice Cellars as a Basis for Food Security and Energy Sustainability of Isolated Indigenous Communities in the Arctic. Energies, 15(3), p.972.

5McCarthy, W., 2022. Nunapitchuk’s laundromat and water treatment building is tilting precariously. [online] KYUK. Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2022].

© Woodwell Climate Research Center
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Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic

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