Accelerated Arctic warming – Geo-data saves the day for risk management

The accelerated warming of the Arctic has put five million lives in North America, Scandinavia and Russia at grave risk. A recent whitepaper by WGIC in partnership with Fugro and e-GEOS discusses the geospatial frameworks and state-of-the-art technologies for mapping the Arctic and mitigating the risks.

WGIC Secretariat August 9, 2022
Accelerated Arctic warming – Geospatial data saves the day for risk management of critical infrastructure

The Arctic region is warming more than twice as fast as the global average. This is leading to decreasing sea ice, snow and glaciers as well as thawing permafrost. Arctic permafrost covers around a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s land surface and is home to five million people in North America, Scandinavia and Russia. It covers at least 120,000 buildings, 40,000 km of roads and 9,500 km of pipelines, as well as airstrips in these regions. 70% of infrastructure and 30-50% of critical infrastructure in the Arctic is at high risk of damage by 2050. This will accelerate global warming further, making it a grave (and yet less discussed) threat to Arctic residents, ecosystems, economies, and overall health of our planet in four key ways: erosion, destabilising infrastructure, floods and forced migration, and diseases, with a projected cost of tens of billions of dollars.  

Geospatial technology enablers offer a high degree of innovation and facilitate solutions to understand and adapt to the changing Arctic. A recent whitepaper, ‘Geo-data for risk management in a changing Arctic’, developed by WGIC in association with Fugro and e-GEOS details the risks of multiple climate change impacts including permafrost thaw, reduced sea-ice and glaciers, and sea-level rise on (critical) infrastructure and coastlines, to demonstrate the role of geo-data in understanding, predicting and mitigating these risks. 

For instance, to combat coastal hazards such as flooding, erosion and landslides, coastal screening geo-data such as nearshore bathymetry, imagery and topography of the coastal uplands, hydrology, and vector shoreline among other datasets help to understand a broad suite of risks and help informed management of coastal lands, safe navigation in an ice-diminished Arctic, and responsible resource and energy exploration. Shallow water bathymetric mapping is ideal for optically clear waters. It is a much safer and cost-effective alternative to define the shoreline and shallow water depths.  

At the same time, airborne LiDAR, airborne InSAR are powerful tools to carry out the topographic mapping of the rugged, steep and heavily forested areas of the Arctic. However, beyond the depths of optical sensors, vessel-based SONAR remains the workforce of all hydrographic and ocean-floor mapping. 

For ice-related geodata, by utilising multibeam SONAR, digital photogrammetry, and motion compensation technologies as part of a screening solution, complex iceberg properties above and below the waterline can be digitally delivered for ice engineering, ice management, and risk mitigation. The resulting high-density 3D iceberg models enable multiple applications including impact analysis, drift prediction, and in-field ice management, among others.  

Satellite imagery finds numerous valuable applications in habitat characterisation and exploration. In the context of baseline mapping, satellite imagery is used to map uncharted hazards or changes from the baseline.  

Complex coastal environments typically require more than one technology to achieve the optimum mapping solution. An integrated screening approach utilising satellite imagery, airborne LiDAR, satellite-derived bathymetry, airborne lidar bathymetry and MBES enables delivery of quality geo-data cost-effectively, thereby providing critical and timely inputs for risk management of the coastal zone.  

Moreover, having high-quality 3D maps of Arctic regions and coastlines enables its use in a variety of different applications, often unforeseen in the original objectives. For instance, an Alaskan InSAR dataset of one of the challenging areas, created initially for elevation mapping was later used for ice thickness mapping and search and rescue operations in the aftermath of a plane crash in the area. 

Geo-data management  

Scientists and engineers access a wide range of geospatial data for managing land and resources, building and maintaining infrastructure, and modelling and forecasting environmental change in the Arctic.  

Moving beyond the confines of highly specialised skillsets, geo-data is being liberated to benefit even the average citizen. Efforts, such the Arctic Spatial Data Infrastructure, are being made towards providing open access to a coherent and authoritative Arctic reference map and thematic Arctic geo-data. Broadening access to geo-data provides a foundation for self-service analytics among an extensive variety of users, which is vital to a sustainable future. 

Take the case of coastal mapping: across the globe, government agencies collect and publish authoritative data depicting low-lying communities prone to sea-level rise and storms. Experts within these agencies use the data to perform various analyses, such as damage estimates, risk-level determinations and coastal resilience strategies. Easy access to this expert analysis would also benefit non-governmental users, helping individuals and business owners make informed decisions in support of a safe and liveable world.  

Geo-data supports faster, more-informed decision-making by experts; associated GIS tools make this information more valuable by offering the general public greater transparency in the decision-making process and a deeper understanding of how the science impacts them directly.  


For the rapidly changing and dynamic Arctic region, epistemic uncertainty (i.e. uncertainty arising from insufficient data, information and knowledge) is a principal source of risk for stakeholders involved in the development and management of built and natural assets in the land and marine environments. It follows that reducing uncertainty delivers better risk management and a greater probability of achieving stakeholder objectives.  

Present and future challenges and opportunities at all scales in the Arctic region will require effective risk management, with decisions on project feasibility, sustainable design as well as appropriate maintenance practices dependent upon the risk tolerance of a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Risk reduction will involve either lowering the probability of occurrence of a hazard, or mitigating its consequences. Insights and subsequent decisions around risk will need to be founded on robust, reliable and relevant geo-data acquired from technology enablers such as those discussed in this white paper.  

Geospatial and geophysical technology enablers will help deliver value-adding insights not only about the present state and condition of natural and built assets, but also to build reliable, predictive behavioural models for timely and effective intervention.  

There is no single magic tool to address all environmental, cost and safety constraints of acquiring appropriate geo-data in the Arctic. Efficient execution will require many tools in the toolbox – handheld, vessel-borne, airborne or spaceborne, crewed or uncrewed, active or passive. And crucially, it will require expert knowledge to optimise what works where. Proper geo-data management and liberation frameworks can enable self-service analytics by non-technical end-users looking to reduce uncertainty and manage risks in day-to-day work and life decision-making, facilitating knowledge sharing while also addressing community interests and concerns.  

For more information, download the white paper below.

The original content of the blog post is sourced from the white paper created by WGIC, Fugro and e-GEOS, entitled “Geo-data for risk management in a changing Arctic.”

Editor of the blog: Bhanu Rekha from WGIC