At one point, permanently-frozen ground, or permafrost, covered nearly 1/4 of the land on Earth — but that’s changing as global warming is melting the ice and changing the landscape in places like Siberia, Arctic Canada, and Alaska. Generations of ice, some of it hundreds of thousands of years old or more, has started slowly softening over the past 30 years. Now, roads, houses, and entire towns constructed in years past are collapsing and being ripped apart by the shifting earth.
That’s not the worst part. Decaying organic matter that has been trapped in the permafrost for thousands of years is thawing, potentially releasing huge amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gasses as it melts. In Alaska, visitors can tour 40,000-year old tunnels in the frozen ground, filled with trapped grasses, twigs, bones, and more — all of which may soon be exposed as global temperatures rise.
Melting permafrost has already profoundly affected many costal areas, which are disproportionately populated by poor, indigenous communities. Whole villages in coastal regions have had to be moved, and local infrastructure has had to be completely rebuilt as it sinks into the ground. But there is some hope if recently-developed sustainable building practices are used in new construction. The permafrost beneath buildings and houses can be kept more stable by building houses on slits, or shielded by a “thermal raft” which insulates the permafrost from the heat of the dwelling. In some areas, houses may be placed on skids so they can be easily moved to a new location if necessary.
Jack Hebert of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center described the local struggle this way in an interview with Al Jazeera:“”People in rural Alaska lived successfully and sustainably for up to 12,000 years. In less than a century that has all changed. To help those communities, we listen to them and we emphasise indigenous wisdom and 21st century technology.”
Via Al Jazeera