‘Wake Up Call’: Rapidly Thawing Permafrost Threatens Trans-Alaska Pipeline

By Common Dreams Staff. Originally published at Common Dreams

Alaska’s thawing permafrost is undermining the supports that hold up an elevated section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, putting in danger the structural integrity of one of the world’s largest oil pipelines.

In a worst-case scenario, a rupture of the pipeline would result in an oil spill in a delicate and remote landscape where it would be extremely difficult to clean up.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Carl Weimer, of Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit pipeline watchdog group based in Bellingham, Washington. “The implications of this speak to the pipeline’s integrity and the effect climate change is having 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 braces holding this section of the pipeline to twist and bend.

According to NBC News, the pipeline supports have been damaged by “slope creep” caused by thawing permafrost, records, and interviews with officials involved with managing the pipeline show.

To combat the problem, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has approved the use of about 100 thermosyphons — tubes that suck heat out of the permafrost – to keep the frozen slope in place and prevent further damage to the pipeline’s support structure.

“The proposed project is integral to the protection of the pipeline,” according to the department’s November 2020 analysis.

There is some concern in using these cooling tubes – They have never been used as a defensive safeguard once a slope has begun to slide, and the permafrost is already thawing.

Feedback Loop

The Arctic and Alaska are heating twice as fast as the rest of the globe because of global warming. And global warming is driving the thawing of permafrost that the oil industry must keep frozen to maintain the infrastructure that allows it to extract more of the fossil fuels that cause the warming.

Permafrost is ground that has remained completely frozen for at least two years straight and is found beneath nearly 85 percent of Alaska. In the last few decades, permafrost temperatures there have warmed as much as 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The state’s average temperature is projected to increase 2 to 4 degrees more by the middle of the century, and a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change projects that with every 2-degree increase in temperature, 1.5 million square miles of permafrost could be lost to thawing.

Common Dreams reported in 2019 that the melting of Alaska’s permafrost is rapidly accelerating:

“The northernmost point on the planet is heating up more quickly than any other region in the world. The reason for this warming is ice–albedo feedback: as ice melts it opens up land and sea to the sun, which then absorb more heat that would have been bounced off by the ice, leading to more warming. It’s a vicious circle of warmth that’s changing the environment at the north pole.

“In Alaska, the crisis led this year to the warmest spring on record for the state; one city, Akiak, may turn into an island due to swelling riverbanks and erosion exacerbated by thawing permafrost and ice melt. Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center scientist Susan Natali told The Guardian that what’s happening in Akiak is just an indicator of the danger posed to Alaska by the climate crisis.

“The changes are really accelerating in Alaska,” said Natali.”

The Trans-Alaska system was completed in 1977. The 48-inch diameter steel pipeline runs for 800 miles, carrying “hot oil” from America’s largest oil reserve in Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez. The pipeline is either buried underground or lifted above the surface in an attempt to prevent the permafrost from melting.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

22 comments

  1. Appleseed

    This paragraph sums up the tragedy well.

    The Arctic and Alaska are heating twice as fast as the rest of the globe because of global warming. And global warming is driving the thawing of permafrost that the oil industry must keep frozen to maintain the infrastructure that allows it to extract more of the fossil fuels that cause the warming.

    It’s demoralizing to realize that my efforts to reduce personal fossil fuel use by walking, riding my bike or using transit are inadequate in the face of such infrastructural decay.

    Reply
    1. jefemt

      May you find some peace and grace.

      Wish I had a consoling answer for you… you personally ARE acting, and that really is all that one can do… waiting on local, regional, national or international governments nation/states will NOT change a thing.

      It’s up to each of us, personally. Hang in there if you can, help other folks.

      I find myself judging a lot, and that pains me!
      Be kind… more love

      Reply
    2. cnchal

      > It’s demoralizing to realize that my efforts to reduce personal fossil fuel use by walking, riding my bike or using transit are inadequate in the face of such infrastructural decay.

      What is even moar demoralizing is the fact that your conservation lets the gluttons continue to stuff their faces with oil at less cost.

      Help is on the way though. What we need is a new electrified pickup truck with 600 HP. Why does it need that much power? To get out of it’s own road crumbling 6000 lb way.

      Reply
      1. juno mas

        I agree that a 6000 pound truck, even if electrified, with 600 BHP (brake horsepower) is a bit much. But most highways are (over)built to withstand 18 wheelers (40,000 lbs.) It takes about 10,000 small trucks or SUV’s to equal the road stress created by a 40′ long commercial truck.

        Electrification of cars and trucks isn’t going to reduce the cost of road maintenance.

        Reply
        1. cnchal

          Lots of roads are off limits to big trucks, so lighter duty roads are going to take a beating with heavy personal vehicles. Now, 6000 lbs for a truck is the norm, what’s it going to be in five years, 8000 lbs?

          When one looks at potential road damage versus vehicle weight, a 6000 lb 2 axle vehicle will inflict 16 times moar than a 3000 lb 2 axle vehicle. Imagine how fast the fleet would slim down if plate prices were based on that power law?

          > Electrification of cars and trucks isn’t going to reduce the cost of road maintenance.

          I know, and that is a pity. Road maintenance will no doubt be costlier as time goes on due to the popular defensive driving technique of bigger is better.

          Reply
    3. Edward

      A way to think about these measures is in terms of the percentage reduction; if you have reduced your personal consumption by 30% that is significant. It is part of a general transition in how we live that needs to happen.

      Reply
    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      All any individual can do is ” live his/her witness” about conservation living. The individual may hope that other potentially concernable individuals may see, learn and do. And that ” living one’s witness ” may spread out in further ripples on the pond of additive and accretive mass-quantity mutiple individuals’ actions.

      Maybe enough such individuals will form up into a culture and then a movement which can support political strike forces able to torture and terrorise the system into imposing system-wide changes on the social-material forecefield in which ALL the individuals live.

      For those who have decided that it is time to give up on politics and social concern, and that the Last Roundup and the Age of Survivalism is upon us, Ian Welsh offers this post (with its attendant thread).

      it is titled . . . Understanding your control over climate change.
      https://www.ianwelsh.net/understanding-your-control-over-climate-change/

      And as to the seeming paradox of selling-using fossil fuel leading to the infrastructure decay which will prevent extracting that self-same fossil fuel in cases like this, I think the Fossil Industrial Complex has already thought about and beyond the Great Permafrost Meltdown. They look forward to the time when the Arctic Ocean is ice free year round and Greenland is a bare ice-free zone. They expect they will be able to find and drill more oil and gas all over the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Island and Elsmere Island and Greenland than what they will lose with a broken Alaska Pipeline.

      Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    Short of tying helium-filled balloons to this pipeline to keep it up and to stop it breaking when the ground gives underneath it, I don’t see any long-term solution – except to shut the whole thing down as it contributes to the problem. Now that would be a real solution.

    In a year or two’s time, we should hopefully be seeing fewer headlines about the present pandemic which will be a relief. Unfortunately, I fully expect to see more and more stories of how our infrastructure is being broken due to climate change like with this pipeline.

    Reply
  3. Rod

    Slopes are one thing.
    Pipes tunneled through permafrost to cross UNDER rivers are another crux…
    There are many.
    There is skirmishing over Line 3 in Minnesota daily and the next two weeks Protests are planned across the USA to dissuade further Financing of Enbridge Energy by Wells/BoA/Chase and their Insurers like Liberty.

    Speak out now.

    Reply
    1. TimH

      Also ‘cleanup is difficult’… what exactly happens to oil soaked soil that is removed as part of the cleanup? It has to go somewhere, so the pollution is surely simply moved elsewhere in practice.

      Reply
      1. Starry Gordon

        Bacteria eat oil, but in subzero temperatures it will take them a long, long time. It sounds, though, as if the problem is being taken care of. Not in a nice way, but that’s the way we do things. Nature is beautiful, but she doesn’t care all that much about you, and she has a truly wicked temper.

        Reply
  4. Glen

    It would be nice if the PTB could actually start PLANNING and ACTING to deal with climate change. Instead it feels like we’re just going to watch while everything falls apart and we all make a bug out plan for escaping when destruction shows up at our door step.

    And we get to watch our government argue about the mere existence of climate change and if it should be fixed at all.

    Reply
  5. Peter

    There is only one solution – they have to STOP the flow and shut it down. That is the way it goes, if they do not do that – they will destroy an area that is likely impossible to clean up. As progress moves on the old must yield to the new – Fossil Fuels time is ending and it cannot end faster enough – if these guys think they come make just a little more money and that it will not be a problem and that is what all of them are saying meanwhile the Earth is clearing showing us that there is trouble coming. Remember, even after we stop ALL emissions the temperatures will go up for a while longer. If it’s my planet or them making money we all need to choose our planet – obviously.

    Reply
    1. Homerak

      The oilies who come up here to fill and operate that pipeline are just as big a problem as the oil itself.

      Reply
  6. orlbucfan

    There are hundreds of miles of rotting, rusting, abandoned pipelines both underground and under water in this country. They have never been properly maintained. Their threat both environmentally and health wise have been documented for decades. When are we going to see a few white collared petroleum crooks in prison where they belong? Not in my lifetime, that is for sure!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *