Climate warming and enhanced anthropogenic activities have caused, are causing, and will continue to cause degradation of frozen ground in China, resulting in the destabilization of existing cold-regions infrastructures. These problems have been embodied in the field by increasing damage or failure of engineering structures, by frequent outbreaks of construction-induced frost hazards, and by increasing challenges for frozen-ground engineers and scientists. The most urgent issues are probably the retrofitting of existing infrastructures to adapt to changing climate and rising expectations in the level of design of future infrastructures to adapt to changing or changed frozen-ground conditions and upgraded construction standards.

In 2009, permafrost activities in China mainly included projects and programs funded and conducted by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and National Science Foundation, as well as continuing studies on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Highway and Expressway, and the China-Russia Oil Pipeline in Northeastern China.

MoST Permafrost Project of the State Key Laboratory of Frozen Soils Engineering (SKLFSE)

Headed by Professor Wei Ma, this research team will regard the complex climate, frozen-ground, and engineered system as an integrated and interactive system in order to study the physical, mechanical, and chemical processes in frozen-ground foundations and cold regions environments, and their internal interdependence and mutual impacts; to explore the interactions of permafrost and environment, and the complex resultant moisture, thermal and mechanical coupling processes; and to develop and improve the prediction theories and methods on the long-term stability of frozen-ground foundations. Research on the interactions of frozen-ground environments and cold-regions infrastructure can provide more reliable scientific information for the detection of changes and impacts in cold-regions environments, the mitigation of frost hazards, and the control over safety, reliability and long-term stability of state key engineering projects. This project will advance the research on frozen-ground engineering, and help sustain the research in geocryology and cold-regions engineering.

One of the major objectives in this project is to understand and forecast the changes in elevational permafrost. Based on current and future data on the evolution of permafrost, seasonally frozen ground and the active layer processes, the project aims at better understanding the responses of permafrost and active layer to climate change, its interaction with environmental variables, such as vegetation, snow cover, and slopes as well as forecasting changes and their hydrological, ecological, environmental and socio-economical implications.

The study is to be implemented along a planned Qinghai-Tibet Permafrost Ecology Transect (QTPET) which is now under construction. The QTPET is to start from Nagqü, Tibet south of the Tanggula Mountains to the Hei’he Watershed on the northern flank of the Qilian Mountains(total area of about 1200×600 km). It includes the Sources Area of the 3 Rivers (Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang/Mekong) (SA3R), and the areas along the Qinghai-Tibet engineering corridors from Golmud to Nagqü and from Xi’ning to Yushu, Qidam Basin, and the middle pat of the Qilian Mountains. It also includes the Tanggula, Kunlun, Qilian, Bayan Har, Anyemaqên mountain ranges, which are characterized by strong local variations in the zonation of frozen ground, soils, flora and fauna. The northwestern Qingshui’he-Budongquan transect along the Highway S308 extends until the Altyn Tag, a path characterized by declining impacts from monsoonal climate, steep heat-moisture gradients, and dramatic changes in frozen ground conditions and cold regions ecology. The existing Tianshuihai-Akeseqin Permafrost Station along the Highway G219, which was established in 2007 by a joint effort of the University of Heidelberg and the SKLFSE, will be enlarged and extended both in the direction of Yecheng and Ritu near Bangong Co Lake. Akeseqin, with an average elevation of 5000 m a.s.l. and a very harsh environment (very windy year-round and dry (20-27 mm/a)), is believed to be the bottleneck for species migration from southeast to high and west Asia. Long-term (>10-15 years) ecological profiles are also being set up along the SA3R until the Middle Qilian Mountains. There are also several stations built and planned along the Qilian Mountains to form a northwestern profile for permafrost ecology.

These research activities and field monitoring networks may result in about 10 new permafrost, active layer and ecology stations (PALES), with their center being located at the Yushu-Madoi in the SA3R.

MoST QTP Permafrost Survey Project

With Professor Lin Zhao as the chief scientist and the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences as the host, the MoST Basic Research Project “Baseline Survey of Permafrost in the representative areas on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” was officially initiated on 24 May 2009. This 5-year, $2.5-M project aims at collecting and analyzing the existing data on continuous and discontinuous permafrost zones along the main road systems (mainly the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Highway [QTR/H, or G109], Qinghai-Kang Highway [QKH, or G214] and Xinjiang-Tibet Highway [XTH, or G219]). It will also perform comprehensive investigations of permafrost conditions along two discrete, longitudinal and altitudinal (Madoi-Qümalêb-Budongquan-Hoh’Xil-Tianshuihai/ Akseqin) transects, and comprehensive mapping of five representative areas. Using geophysical sounding, drilling and hand-dug pits, mapping will delineate the present boundaries of permafrost zones, determine the thickness of the active layer, and include data on soils, vegetation, climate and geomorphology. It will also aim at improving the existing observation and monitoring systems, at acquiring basic data of permafrost and cold regions environments, at GIS/RS-assisted mapping of permafrost distribution, and at assessing the status quo of permafrost.

After three months of preparation, the field campaign of this year started on 12 September and was completed on 20 October. The field team consisted of about 40 people and came from the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI, Lanzhou, Gansu), the Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology (NIPB, Xi’ning, Qinghai), the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environments (IMHE, Chengdu, Sichuan), and the Lanzhou University. In addition, the project also invited Professor Chien-lu Ping from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA and Dr. Tanya O’Neill from the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Wailkato, New Zealand to participate in the fieldwork, who provided training for soil investigations for about 10 days.

This field project selected Wenquan along the QKH as the first test/representative area to survey the boundaries continuity (areal extent), and lower limit of permafrost, permafrost active layer thickness, soils, vegetation, climate and geomorphology. It was the first joint action for surveying methods, which will help to standardize surveying methods and records.

Qinghai-Tibet Expressway Experimental Research Project

With the gradual implementation of the State Expressway Networks Planning in China, more fast-track, high-grade highways will reach the regions affected by frozen ground. About 30% of the expressways will be in seasonally frozen ground areas, and an additional 2% will cross permafrost terrains. In particular, the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway (QTE) will spread across extensive permafrost areas. Significant increases to the roadway widths are expected as well as increased heat accumulation due to construction standards associated with such constructions. This will lead in turn to more intensive interactions between the engineered infrastructure, the underlying permafrost, and the surrounding environment. New solutions need to be sought to ensure their long-term stability and to comply with safety standards

In order to provide scientific basis and engineering solutions for the construction of the highway, many research projects have been started. About $1 million from the SKLFSE budget is invested on the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway experiment and demonstration. The experimental section was based on the experiences from the QTH and QTR, and took into considerations the requirements and standards for the construction of state expressways, and applied nine different experimental engineering setups to control the structural configurations of the centerline, shoulders, side protective slope, and slope toe/drainage ditches from the perspective of heat convection, conduction and radiation. The experiment began on 1 September, and the road construction and equipment installation were completed by 30 September.

Wei Ma and Huijun Jin (