IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

15.7 Conclusions: implications for sustainable development

15.7.1 Economic activity, infrastructure and sustainability in the Arctic

The thawing of ice-rich permafrost creates potential for subsidence and damage to infrastructure, including oil and gas extraction and transportation facilities (Hayley, 2004), and climate warming will exacerbate existing subsidence problems (Instanes et al., 2005). These risks have been assessed using a ‘permafrost hazard’ index (e.g., Nelson et al., 2001; Anisimov and Belolutskaia, 2004; Anisimov and Lavrov, 2004; Smith and Burgess, 2004), which, when coupled with climate projections, suggests that a discontinuous high-risk zone (containing population centres, pipelines and extraction facilities) will develop around the Arctic Ocean by the mid-21st century (Nelson et al., 2001). Similarly, a zone of medium risk contains larger population centres (Yakutsk, Noril?sk, Vorkuta) and much of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways. However, distinguishing between the broad effects of climate change on permafrost and more localised human-induced changes remains a significant challenge (Tutubalina and Rees, 2001; Nelson, 2003). Although several recent scientific and media reports have linked widespread damage to infrastructure with climate change (e.g., Smith et al., 2001; Couture et al., 2003), the effect of heated buildings on underlying ice-rich permafrost can easily be mistaken for a climate-change impact. Similarly, urban heat-island effects occur in northern settlements (e.g., Hinkel et al., 2003) and may be a factor in local degradation of permafrost.

The cost of rehabilitating community infrastructure damaged by thawing of permafrost could be significant (Couture et al., 2000, 2001; Chartrand et al., 2002). Even buildings designed specifically for permafrost environments may be subject to severe damage if design criteria are exceeded (Khrustalev, 2000). The impervious nature of ice-rich permafrost has been relied on as a design element in landfill and contaminant-holding facilities (Snape et al., 2003), and thawing such areas could result in severe contamination of hydrological resources and large clean-up costs, even for relatively small spills (Roura, 2004). Rates of coastal erosion in areas of ice-rich permafrost are among the highest anywhere and could be increased by rising sea levels (Brown et al., 2003). Relocation of threatened settlements would incur very large expenses. It has been estimated that relocating the village of Kivalina, Alaska, to a nearby site would cost US$54 million (U.S. Arctic Research Commission Permafrost Task Force, 2003). However, some fraction of the costs will be offset by economic benefits to northern communities. For example, there will be savings on heating costs: modelling has predicted a 15% decline in the demand for heating energy in the populated parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic and up to 1 month decrease in the duration of the period when heating is needed (Anisimov, 1999).

Lakes and river ice have historically provided major winter transportation routes and connections to smaller settlements. Reductions in ice thickness will reduce the load-bearing capacity, and shortening of the ice season will shorten periods of access. Adaptation in the initial stages of climate change will be through modified construction techniques and transport vehicles and schedules, but longer-term strategies will require new transportation methods and routes. Where an open-water network is viable, it will be sensible to increase reliance on water transport. In land-locked locations, the construction of all-weather roads may be the only viable option, with implications for significantly increased costs (e.g., Lonergan et al., 1993; Dore and Burton, 2001). Similar issues will impact the use of the sea-ice roads primarily used to access offshore facilities.

Loss of summer sea ice will bring an increasingly navigable Northwest Passage, and the Northern Sea Route will create new opportunities for cruise shipping. Projections suggest that by 2050, the Northern Sea Route will have 125 days/yr with less than 75% sea-ice cover, which represents favourable conditions for navigation by ice-strengthened cargo ships (Instanes et al., 2005). Increased marine navigation and longer summers will improve conditions for tourism and travel associated with research (Instanes et al., 2005), and this effect is already being reported in the North American Arctic (Eagles, 2004).

Even without climate change, the complexity of producing a viable plan for sustainable development of the Arctic would be daunting; but the added uncertainty of climate change, and its likely amplification in the Arctic, make this task enormous. The impacts on infrastructure discussed above, together with the probable lengthening of growing seasons and increasing agricultural effort, opening of new sea routes, changing fish stocks, and ecosystem changes will provide many new opportunities for the development of Arctic economies. However it will also place limits on how much development is actually sustainable. There does, however, now appear to be an increasing understanding, among governments and residents, that environmental protection and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin (Nuttall, 2000a), and a forum for circum-Arctic co-operation exists in the Arctic Council. This involves eight nations and six indigenous peoples’ organisations and embraces the concept of sustainable development in its mandate. The Arctic Council, in partnership with the International Arctic Science Committee, is responsible for the recent Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA, 2005), which has substantially improved the understanding of the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, is a benchmark for regional impact assessments, and may become the basis for a sustainable management plan for the Arctic.