Amplified climate warming has led to permafrost degradation and a shortening of the winter season, both impacting cost-effective overland travel across the Arctic. Here we use, for the first time, four state-of-the-art Land Surface Models that explicitly consider ground freezing states, forced by a subset of bias-adjusted CMIP5 General Circulation Models to estimate the impact of different global warming scenarios (RCP2.6, 6.0, 8.5) on two modes of winter travel: overland travel days (OTDs) and ice road construction days (IRCDs).
We show that OTDs decrease by on average −13% in the near future (2021–2050) and between −15% (RCP2.6) and −40% (RCP8.5) in the far future (2070–2099) compared to the reference period (1971–2000) when 173 d yr−1 are simulated across the Pan-Arctic. Regionally, we identified Eastern Siberia (Sakha (Yakutia), Khabarovsk Krai, Magadan Oblast) to be most resilient to climate change, while Alaska (USA), the Northwestern Russian regions (Yamalo, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Nenets, Komi, Khanty-Mansiy), Northern Europe and Chukotka are highly vulnerable.
The change in OTDs is most pronounced during the shoulder season, particularly in autumn. The IRCDs reduce on average twice as much as the OTDs under all climate scenarios resulting in shorter operational duration. The results of the low-end global warming scenario (RCP2.6) emphasize that stringent climate mitigation policies have the potential to reduce the impact of climate change on winter mobility in the second half of the 21st century.
Nevertheless, even under RCP2.6, our results suggest substantially reduced winter overland travel implying a severe threat to livelihoods of remote communities and increasing costs for resource exploration and transport across the Arctic.