Kangerlussuaq, July 5 2022

July 6, 2022

Spent a good part of yesterday sleeping and recovering from travel and jet lag.

I did get out a couple of times to shoot some of the surroundings. Much is the same since I was last here, 5 years ago.

Kangerlussuaq is a dusty village, a former Strategic Air Command base with one of the longest runways in the world (for B-52s), and relatively predictable weather, which makes it an ideal target for the daily Air Greenland flight that comes in from Copenhagen, year round. It is Greenland’s main international hub., with most of the 250k passengers annually connecting to other flights here. In Greenland, the absence of roads and impassable terrain make flying the primary means of travel for more than a few miles.

However, this won’t last, because the permafrost underlying Kangerlussuaq is softening, and there is more than just talk about eventually expanding the airstrip in Ilulissat, somewhat north of here, to handle heavy planes in the future.

Petr Brož / CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Arctic Today:

Damage to the runway was first documented in 1973 when the pavement at the western threshold had settled up to 30 centimeters resulting in local repairs. More extensive excavation and replacements occurred in 1988/89 when the entire runway was repaved. However, the runway continued to settle and by 2006 a 400-meter-long section had settled unevenly by up to 40 centimeters. Further studies conducted in 2013 measured settling of 52 centimeters leaving scientists to conclude that the western part of the runway sinks by 2.6 centimeters per year.

Greenland’s government has considered a number of options following various expert studies and reports, including downgrading the Kangerlussuaq to a heliport, shortening the runway, or maintaining the current situation. All options come with substantial costs.

Permafrost threatens Arctic infrastructure

Greenland’s largest airport is just one of a growing list of infrastructure that is becoming susceptible to thawing soil. Permafrost is ground that is frozen year-round for at least two years. With rising temperatures across the Arctic more and more permafrost is susceptible to melting turning solid frozen earth into mud. This can result in destructive failures for any structure erected on top of it.

Recent studies on the matter confirm that 70 percent of the Arctic’s roads, buildings, and airports have a high potential to be affected by thawing ground over the next 30 years. A 2018 study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks concluded that three-quarters of the Arctic population, about 3.6 million people, are located in areas with a high potential for thawing of permafrost. Even just across the “high hazard” zone more than 36,000 buildings, 13,000 kilometers (more than 8,000 miles) of roads and 100 airports face a very high risk of damage by 2050.

The effects of permafrost melt are not limited to road and housing infrastructure but also affect major industrial developments, such as oil and gas projects in Russia’s Yamal region, as well as Alaska’s trans-Alaska pipeline.

“We show that nearly four million people and 70 percent of current infrastructure in the permafrost domain are in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost. Our results demonstrate that one-third of pan-Arctic infrastructure and 45 percent of the hydrocarbon extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are in regions where thaw-related ground instability can cause severe damage to the built environment,” explains Vladimir Romanovsky, a scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

Famously, at the location where I was filming last night, (above) – almost exactly a decade ago, the bridge was entirely washed away by a massive flooding event following an unprecedented melt over the entire ice sheet, that must have been especially intense in the catchment feeding the Watson.

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