In November 2021, an abnormal amount of torrential rain descended on the Pacific Northwest region of North America, wiping out major highways around Vancouver, British Columbia and kicking off a series of supply chain problems that still persist for the Canadian city. That experience is about to become the norm under climate change, the Washington Post warns. And it’s going to impact up to 70 percent of the roads on the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost regions.
Scientists have warned about the impact of rising temperatures for years — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, flooded cities, growing food deserts — but the rapid changes we’ve needed have failed to come in time. Now, it’s not so much how we’re going to avoid climate change as we’re going to offset it, and we’re going to have to start thinking about how we’ll manage without the very roads on which we travel and the infrastructure that defines our lives.
Basically, a warming Earth means melting glaciers — but it also means melting permafrost. If you’ve forgotten about permafrost since your childhood science classes, it refers to that kind of ground that’s been frozen for at least two years, but much of it has been frozen for thousands. You’ll see plenty of permafrost in northern Canada and Russia, and in the Northern Hemisphere, we’d probably classify those areas as the Arctic. Most of the folks who live in permafrost regions live in Russia.
But new research published in the Nature Reviews Earth & Environment journal has some damning facts: Warming permafrost will cause damage to 70 percent of the infrastructure of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost regions, which includes 25,000 miles of road and 120,000 buildings.
Permafrost serves as the very basis on which that particular ecosystem is built; letting it melt is the equivalent of yanking out that last foundational Jenga block in your tower. The ground will buckle, taking with it roads, pipelines, houses, and more.
As we’ve seen, though, the roads in permafrost regions aren’t the only ones susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Rapidly changing environments lead to unpredictable weather patterns that can destroy the very ground on which our lives are built.
Think about Vancouver. The problem there wasn’t just that a little extra rain caused some flooding. Instead, the rain and flooding eroded the ground, which saw highways and roads buckle under the pressure of the water. Think about the various roads all around the world that are buckling because they can’t withstand heat. If we start losing the Arctic’s permafrost, the rest of the world will fall, too.