As the world warms, countries with Arctic holdings are increasingly looking to the region for the development and use. like Ars reported last July, the frigid polar zone may be open to more shipments as it remains ice-free longer under climate change.
However, policymakers and scientists need better tools to understand the extent to which humans are using the Arctic and what the future holds for the roads, settlements and other developments in the region. New research claims to provide a more accurate way to observe how human use is changing the Arctic.
According to Annett Bartsch, lead author of the paper, there are currently no good data sources for risk assessment and vulnerability studies for infrastructures in the Arctic. She said that Open StreetMap it is “incomplete and inconsistent” in the Arctic and that previous research using it has just accepted its limitations.
The new effort uses machine learning, previously underutilized satellite data (among other data sets), and many hours of human labor for its methods and insights. The project provides what, according to Bartsch, is a better picture of human infrastructure in one of the coldest regions on Earth. First, the work examines coastal areas, as many communities in the Arctic are close to the ocean, but it also studies inland areas.
“We wanted to create something that was consistent and really captured as many settlements as possible,” Bartsch told Ars.
A few years ago, high-resolution satellite imagery became available through the European Space Agency, and Bartsch and his team accessed it to form the basis of recent research. These images have a resolution of 10 meters, which is higher than the 30 meter resolution previously available through the Landsat program. It might not seem like a big difference, but when you measure buildings and streets, it can mean a lot.
“If you think about the width of a road, with 30 meters, you can’t capture anything. But with 10 meters, things get interesting, “Bartsch said, although he added that there are still many features (man-made or not) that can’t be detected even at 10 meters resolution.
Next, the team used machine learning to identify all possible functionalities, a process that took several years, after a year or two of developing the algorithms. For the sake of the research paper, the team also integrated other relevant data, such as soil temperature trends, permafrost levels, vegetation change, etc. The researchers also set human eyes on the results as a kind of quality control, she said.
In addition to providing a new method of observing human land use in the Arctic, the research also presents some interesting insights into how we got confused up there. By observing changes in vegetation and assuming that the decrease in vegetation in some areas is related to human activity, the team extrapolated how much humanity has expanded on earth. At least 15 percent (around 180 square kilometers) of developments since 2000 are new.
Considering Toronto proper is more than 600 square kilometers, it might not seem like much, but it’s also the Arctic, where it’s hard to build things. Additionally, Bartsch noted that the estimate is likely conservative, as vegetation in the high Arctic is quite sparse. Furthermore, only about 4 million people live in the Arctic, compared to about 3 million who live in Toronto proper (not the region).
According to the research, most of the expansions took place in Russia, but the US and Canada are also up there. Furthermore, 31% of the area affected by the extraction of oil and gas was developed after 2000; for mining, the figure is 5%.
One of the paper’s most compelling findings suggests that by 2050, 55 percent of the world’s Arctic developments will reside on land where permafrost disappears above the 2-meter mark (it can persist at greater depths). To get this value, the researchers took temperature trends over the past 20 years and extrapolated them into the future.
According to Bartsch, this disappearance could spell danger to the region’s roads and buildings, as they are often built to certain specifications that may simply not exist as the Arctic and its soil are warm. The changes could see structural damage to the buildings and roads of the region.