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The Unseen Hazard: How Climate Change is Causing Urban Ground Deformation

Discover how climate change is causing urban ground deformation, creating subsurface heat islands that lead to sinking cities. Understand this silent hazard's effects on our infrastructure and explore the potential solutions to mitigate its impact.

By Μιχάλης ΔαδόπουλοςPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
The Unseen Hazard: How Climate Change is Causing Urban Ground Deformation
Photo by NASA on Unsplash


We're living in an age where the effects of climate change are increasingly palpable. From more frequent and extreme weather events to rising sea levels, climate change's impact is felt worldwide. But what about the effects that aren't as immediately noticeable? The effects that are, quite literally, under our feet? In this article, we delve into the alarming and often overlooked consequences of climate change: the deformation of urban ground due to subsurface warming, otherwise known as "underground climate change."

The Underground Climate Change: A Silent Hazard

Climate change isn't just causing a shift in weather patterns or rising ocean levels. Beneath our feet, our cities' very foundations are being altered by what scientists call "underground climate change" or "subsurface heat islands". As our cities grow, heat is continuously released from buildings and underground transportation systems, causing the ground to warm at an alarming rate.

The result? The soil, rocks, and construction materials that make up our urban landscapes are expanding and contracting with these temperature variations. Now, that might not sound too concerning at first glance. After all, soil is supposed to be flexible, right? However, this isn't just a case of the ground "breathing." These deformations can affect the performance of civil infrastructure.

Our Sinking Cities

The effects of these deformations aren't merely theoretical. Studies have indicated that many city foundations are undergoing unwanted settlement, slowly but continuously. For example, in downtown Chicago, researchers found that the ground is deforming due to increasing temperatures underground. That's right; the Windy City is slowly sinking.

How does this happen? As underground temperatures increase, many fine-grained soils, like the clay in Chicago, contract. It's not just about cities built on clay, either. In many urban areas, the warming ground can cause both upward swelling and downward sinking. While these variations might seem subtle - after all, a movement of a few millimeters might not sound like much - they can be enough to cause infrastructure to crack.

The Consequences of Deforming Ground

Urban ground deformation may not be a threat to human safety, but it significantly impacts our infrastructure's longevity and operational performance. As these foundations and structures shift, they can suffer damage that may not be apparent until it's too late.

Moreover, subsurface urban heat islands don't just affect our cities' foundations. They've also been known to cause ecological issues like contaminated groundwater, as well as health issues such as asthma and heatstroke.

A Crisis or an Opportunity?

While the situation seems dire, researchers see a silver lining. By capturing the waste heat emitted underground from sources such as transportation systems and basement facilities, we could mitigate the effects of underground climate change and convert the heat into a valuable thermal energy resource.

This crisis, therefore, also presents an opportunity for urban planners and city administrators to rethink how our cities are designed and to leverage climate change challenges into solutions for sustainable energy production.


In conclusion, the effects of climate change on urban ground deformation are a pressing but often overlooked issue. The slow sinking of our cities due to underground heat islands is not only damaging our infrastructure but also creating potential ecological and health issues. However, in these challenges lie opportunities for sustainable energy production and urban development. As we continue to combat climate change, we must address this "silent hazard" head-on, ensuring our cities' future safety and sustainability.

So, what can we do to mitigate the effects of underground climate change in our cities? How can we turn this crisis into an opportunity for sustainable urban development?


Q: What is underground climate change?

A: Underground climate change, also known as subsurface heat islands, refers to the phenomenon of urban ground warming due to heat continuously released from buildings and underground transportation systems. This heat causes the soil, rocks, and construction materials to expand and contract, leading to ground deformation.

Q: How does underground climate change affect our cities?

A: Underground climate change can lead to significant ground deformations that impact the performance of civil infrastructure. This can result in unwanted settlement of city foundations and cracking of structures.

Q: Is underground climate change dangerous to people's safety?

A: While ground deformation does not directly threaten human safety, it can significantly impact infrastructure's longevity and operational performance, which indirectly affects people's daily lives.

Q: What cities are most affected by underground climate change?

*A: Cities with significant urban

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