Suzanne Bowness, September 23, 2019
Photo credit: Luther Caverly, field photos courtesy of Dr. Chris Burn

PermafrostNet connects a community: New network will help boost Canada’s adaptation to climate change

Until recent decades, researchers could be confident that their numerous studies about permafrost told the tale about this frozen phenomenon, defined as ground that has remained at a temperature of zero degrees Celsius or less for two or more years (it’s known to underlie one-third of Canada). Then climate change began to show its effects, and in doing so destabilized the certainties of a generation of research.

A student stands atop a large hillside which is eroded away at the sides to expose the permafrost at the western Arctic coast.
A student stands atop a large hillside at the western Arctic coast, which is eroded away exposing the permafrost layer.

Worrying changes to the natural landscape make the new research even more imperative. As an example, in the north where mining companies used to bury by-products from their operations, thawing means that those pits are no longer seen as reliable containers. Relatively resistant to climate in the past, in 2016 the Dempster highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories was cut in 14 places by landslides and washouts. Incidents like these signal the need not only for further study but for enhanced information sharing with researchers across disciplines.

Enter PermafrostNet, a new research network based at Carleton and involving researchers from 12 universities and over 40 partnering organizations including those in industry, Indigenous communities, and government agencies nationally and internationally. PermafrostNet was one of only two Strategic Partnership Grants for Networks awarded in 2019 by Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Awarded $5.5 million, the new network aims to boost Canada’s ability to monitor, predict and adapt to large-scale permafrost thaw.

Stephan Gruber in a dark suit, light blue shirt and red tie smiles for the camera in the lobby of his building on campus
Stephan Gruber is Carleton’s Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Impacts/Adaptation in Northern Canada, and is the principal investigator for PermafrostNet.

Stephan Gruber, a professor in the Department of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Impacts/Adaptation in Northern Canada, is principal investigator for PermafrostNet. He says that the idea for a network gained momentum at a workshop in 2017 where 60 people from different levels of government and academia across Canada gathered to assess what was needed to move forward with research and improved practice in this area. From that meeting also came the Canadian Permafrost Association.

“We want to create forward-looking solutions to permafrost problems for Canadians and that means listening to what problems and solutions exist, and acknowledging and learning from each other’s experience and expertise. Partnership is the prerequisite to asking the right questions and to generating practicable solutions,” says Gruber.

Today, the network involves researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Laurentian University, Université de Montréal, University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, the Royal Military College of Canada, Simon Fraser University, University of Waterloo and the University of Victoria along with organizations from the Canada Nunavut Geoscience Office to the Fort Severn First Nation to the Geological Survey of Canada to the Yukon government to name just a few of the 40.

A student stands on the side of the Dempster highway in 2017 which shows cracks and gaping holes in the gravel and permafrost foundation of the roadway. damage.
A student poses beside the Dempster highway in 2017, which is showing signs of permafrost loss and structural damage.

Gruber, whose own research focuses on predicting the impacts of thawing permafrost through field studies and computer simulation, adds that Carleton is an ideal home base for such a network because of its proximity to the legislators and agencies of Ottawa. Carleton itself already has a longstanding history of research in this area, and has also graduated students who now work both in academia and as professionals in the agencies that address permafrost challenges on the ground.

Part of the network’s mandate will be to train 24 doctoral students, 17 master’s students, four postdoctoral fellows and 16 northern research assistants, fostering the next generation of scholars and policy makers.

Gruber says the imperative to train students from so many disciplines is one of the network’s most important benefits. “Canada needs its brightest young minds to think about climate change now, and this network can boost them in them in that process.” Already, student opportunities outlined on include full funding for network-related projects, mentorship and fieldwork opportunities, as well as student-led workshops and internships. Because of the excellent support in the network, these projects are ideal entry points to northern research for students without northern experience but with strong backgrounds in science or engineering and with the desire to make a difference for Canada in a changing climate.

Chris Burn sits on the edge of his desk, with hands folded in front, wearing a dark suit. He is in front of a large shelving unit filled with reference books.
Chris Burn is a Chancellor’s Professor in the department of Geography and Environmental Studies and supervisor of Carleton’s Graduate Programs in Northern Studies. In 2018, he was awarded the Governor General of Canada’s Canadian Polar Medal which celebrates Canada’s northern heritage and recognizes his extraordinary research in the polar regions and Canada’s North.

Chris Burn, a Chancellor’s Professor in the department of Geography and Environmental Studies and supervisor of Carleton’s Graduate Programs in Northern Studies, is one of Carleton’s preeminent experts on permafrost. He was attracted to join the university in the early 1990s for its reputation in this area. “In Canada, there are relatively few places with a history of ongoing permafrost research. Carleton since the late 1960s has been a centre for research in Canada, initially with Peter Williams and Michael Smith.”

Burn says the new network formalizes existing connections in this field and takes collaboration to a new level. “The science of permafrost is very much an interdisciplinary activity, concerned about water, climate and surface earth processes. The explicit benefit of this network is that it will facilitate our ability to draw in expertise from a wide range of different perspectives,” says Burn, whose own research includes projects that assess the financial impact thawing permafrost has had on the cost of maintaining the Dempster highway. Related network projects will examine the sustainability of the Hudson Bay Railway.

Gruber, who arrived at Carleton in 2013 from the University of Zurich, in turn credits scholars like Burn for continuing the early legacy and making Carleton an ideal home base for the network. So does Shawn Kenny, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, whose current projects include investigations that will support regulators and policy experts in making effective decisions to preserve the integrity of northern infrastructure, and also to help government ministries balance climate change considerations with asset management practices.

Shawn Kenny in a light blue button-down shirt with rolled up sleeves smiles for the camera
Shawn Kenny is an Associate Professor in Geomechanics in Carleton’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His role in the network will focus on the integrity of northern infrastructure that will inform policymakers’ decisions.

Kenny says the network is especially timely where climate change effects on permafrost thaw appear to be accelerating and have significantly affected the performance and integrity of northern infrastructure. “Whereas in the past we could re-establish thermal equilibrium and ground stability over time, now change is happening so fast that more immediate action is required,” he says, noting that his commercial and government partners are eager to put the research to practical use in policy development. “For northern communities, the problem complexity, scale and urgency will require a collaborative network approach to generate practical and reliable solutions.”

Large cracks in the Dempster highway are marked with orange tape, evidence of permafrost loss in 2012.
Large cracks in the Dempster highway in 2012 are evidence of degradation and permafrost loss.

Burn, who has spent years doing field work in the north and spent part of the past summer in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, says he has seen not only the environment change but witnessed the public understanding finally shift to acknowledge the new realities of global warming. “In the past, climate change had a relatively diminished place in the discussion, because in those eras the amount was still within previous natural variabilities. We have passed that threshold with what we are seeing now.”

Burn says the network will help bring together past observations with new insights that will push projects forward. Gruber agrees:

“Much of the network’s activity is focused on better sharing and better using the data that already exists. We believe that Canada must make most of its permafrost data and work toward open sharing across sectors and jurisdictions.”

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