The permafrost thaw in Alaska is undermining the supports that support an elevated section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, endangering the structural integrity of one of the world’s largest pipelines.
In the worst-case scenario, a ruptured pipeline would result in an oil spill in a delicate, remote landscape where it would be extremely difficult to clean up.
âThis is a wake-up call,â said Carl Weimer of Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit pipeline watchdog group based in Bellingham, Washington. âThe implications of this speak to the integrity of the pipeline and the effect of climate change on pipeline safety in general. “
A slope where an 810-foot-long section of the pipeline is secured has started to slip due to the melting permafrost, in turn causing the supports holding that section of the pipeline to twist and bend.
According to NBC News, the pipeline supports were damaged by “slope creep” caused by thawing permafrost, records and interviews with officials involved in the management of the pipeline.
To combat the problem, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has approved the use of about 100 thermosyphons – tubes that draw heat from the permafrost – to hold the frozen slope in place and prevent further damage to the structure. pipeline support.
“The proposed project is an integral part of the protection of the pipeline”, according to the ministry’s analysis of November 2020.
There are some concerns about using these cooling tubes – they’ve never been used as defensive protection once a slope has started to slide and the permafrost is already thawing.
The Arctic and Alaska are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe because of global warming. And global warming is thawing permafrost that the oil industry must keep frozen to maintain the infrastructure that allows it to extract more of the fossil fuels that cause warming.
Permafrost is soil that has remained completely frozen for at least two years in a row and is found under nearly 85 percent of Alaska. In recent decades, permafrost temperatures have warmed up to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The state’s average temperature is expected to rise 2-4 degrees warmer by mid-century, and a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that with every 2-degree temperature increase, 1.5 million square kilometers of permafrost could be lost. when defrosting.
Common Dreams reported in 2019 that the melting of Alaska’s permafrost is accelerating rapidly:
âThe northernmost point of the planet is warming faster than any other region in the world. The reason for this warming is the ice-albedo feedback: when the ice melts, it opens the land and sea to the sun, which then absorbs more heat than would have been rebounded by the ice, resulting in increased warming. It is a vicious circle of heat that changes the environment at the North Pole.
âIn Alaska, the crisis led this year to the hottest spring on record for the state; a town, Akiak, could turn into an island due to swelling of the banks and erosion exacerbated by thawing permafrost and melting ice. Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center scientist Susan Natali said The Guardian that what is happening in Akiak is only one indicator of the danger posed to Alaska by the climate crisis.
âThe changes are really accelerating in Alaska,â Natali said.
The Trans-Alaska System was completed in 1977. The 48-inch-diameter steel pipeline spans 800 miles, carrying “hot oil” from the United States’ largest oil reserve at Prudhoe Bay to port of Valdez. The pipeline is either buried underground or raised above the surface in an attempt to prevent the permafrost from melting.