Losing ground: Adapting construction management approaches to permafrost retreat

Peter Robinson, Stephen McIlwaine

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

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A significant amount of critical energy and resource infrastructure rests on permafrost. As the global climate changes, more areas of permafrost are becoming affected by seasonal thawing, leading to changing ground conditions which were unforeseen during design and construction. As the untapped energy and resource potential of the northern icefields becomes more accessible, construction in these environments is only set to increase. In response, good practice must be established which pro-actively takes into account the uncertainty of ground conditions, rather than simply responding to the conditions as they change.

In this paper, recent literature on design and construction in areas of retreating permafrost is examined, and a mixed-methods approach is described which includes a survey of experienced construction managers, and interviews with industry experts whose primary work is in geo-technical research and development of structures in Arctic regions. It seeks to identify the construction challenges faced by the changing ground conditions, and to establish how existing approaches and practices to construction in permafrost need to be adapted for the future.
The study confirms that in general, existing practices work well and the challenges are well defined. But it identifies several interlocked areas which must be further developed and understood for the success of both existing and future projects in permafrost and Arctic regions. These include: expanding survey ranges, improved risk tracking and management, milestone mapping, adaptive design, and intensive logistics management. Each of these areas is interdependent and is based on the premise of good existing practices. The research makes it clear that for a successful project, the ground conditions and their interaction with the project design must be fully understood, and stakeholders must be brought on board with improved approaches and convinced of the criticality of complete understanding before proceeding with the construction operations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of Researchers in Construction Management (ARCOM): Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of Researchers in Construction Management (ARCOM)
PublisherAssociation of Researchers in Construction Management
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)978-0-9955463-3-2
Publication statusPublished - 08 Sept 2020
EventARCOM 36th Conference and AGM, September 2020: Association of researchers in construction management - Glasgow, United Kingdom
Duration: 07 Sept 202009 Sept 2020


ConferenceARCOM 36th Conference and AGM, September 2020
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Permafrost, construction methods, infrastructure, climate change


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