Infrastructure and Permafrost Degradation in Point Lay, Alaska

Nov 29, 2022

The Native Village of Point Lay (Kali) on the North Slope of Alaska has been identified as the second-most permafrost thaw-affected community in the state of Alaska. The village has 82 residential units, housing a population of approximately 330. Most of the residential buildings in the village are built on an elevated surface underlain by ice-rich permafrost that is susceptible to thaw and terrain subsidence. Issues associated with thawing permafrost have dramatically increased in the village during the last decade. Water and sewer lines have failed, homes are being affected by ground subsidence, the community's freshwater drinking lake drained because of permafrost degradation in 2016, and one of their water storage tanks ruptured last winter.

In June 2022, with funding from NSF and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), a team of researchers from the Institute of Northern Engineering and the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Fairbanks-based Northern Social-Environmental Research, traveled to Point Lay to observe, study, and discuss the effects of thawing permafrost on homes and critical infrastructure in the village. During the research visit, the group: (1) studied permafrost properties and ground-ice conditions in three main terrain units (elevated areas, slopes, and drained-lake basins); (2) mapped the community with a drone to quantify the effect of thermokarst (the process by which ice-rich permafrost thaw produces characteristic depressions, e.g., pits and troughs) on village infrastructure; (3) conducted visual assessments on the effects of thawing permafrost on piling foundations; and (4) interviewed residents about their observations and experiences of permafrost thaw to better understand the impact of landscape changes as well as local concerns and information needs.

A more detailed discussion of the work accomplished during the visit to Point Lay and some preliminary observations was published in the September 27, 2022 issue of the Witness Community Highlights published by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS). The full text of the article is available online.