Inuvik, NW –
A series of rusted metal rods are buried deep in the ground, surrounded by shrubs and spruce trees by the roadside not far from the airport in Inuvik, Northwest.
Installed in 2004, it helps researchers measure how soil changes over time.
According to Jennifer Humphries, a permafrost expert at the Aurora Institute, it is the only site in the world south of the forest line that observes long-term thermal expansion and contraction of the ground in relation to interannual temperature changes. It says. She said the ground there is expanding by two centimeters every year.
“It’s a very neat site,” she says.
Past clouds of humming insects, several nearby trees measure changes in tilt with metal platforms attached to their slender trunks. Humphries said uneven permafrost degradation underground can lead to so-called “drunk forests,” in which crazy trees lean in different directions.
This is one of several locations in the ice-rich Beaufort Delta where scientists are monitoring permafrost and other environmental changes. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else in the world, so permafrost degradation is having far-reaching effects, they say.
“Here, permafrost is the foundation on which everything is built,” Humphries says. “It affects humans, animals, water, environmental transport, and vegetation development. It affects and controls everything.”
The Western Arctic Research Center in Inuvik is home to the Aurora Institute’s headquarters and home to the Permafrost Information Hub. It supports several research projects, including permafrost monitoring along the Dempster Highway and the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway.
Erica Hille, deputy director of the center, said its work is collaborative and community-focused, and her team is working to make all the data accessible. For example, the Inuvik Community Corporation has requested that the Caribou Hills, near Tonadia station, monitor surface temperatures and create hazard maps, she said. There, the Northwest Geological Survey recorded 25 landslides in October 2009 and 80 in September 2017.
“Members of the community know what’s going on, but I think it’s good for us to know why it’s happening and what it means for the future,” she said. says.
Permafrost research can be complex and challenging, says Humphries. Because the strata are buried underground, she says her research methods capture snapshots of time and space. Each permafrost landform is unique, she added, although researchers can generalize to local baseline conditions.
“I think a lot of the time it’s the difference that makes it very difficult to communicate,” she says.
At the site near the airport, Humphries said this is a transitional zone between tundra and forest, and there is considerable snow cover. The deep temperature here is -0.9 degrees Celsius, which is likely warmer than people expect, he said.
“This study shows that permafrost conditions in the Inuvik region are actually more susceptible to climate change than people first thought, perhaps 20 years ago.”
Driving through the city, Humphries notes that many houses are built on piles rather than directly on the ground. Periodic leveling may be required as the foundation moves as the permafrost thaws and settles.
Inuvik’s landmark Church of Our Lady of Victory (also known as the Igloo Church because of its iconic shape) has also been affected by the thawing permafrost.
Originally opened in 1960, Humphries says the building is well designed, with vents to keep the basement and foundation cool. But during renovations a few years ago, those vents were accidentally covered and topped insulated, which caused permafrost degradation and subsidence problems, she says.
Those vents have since reopened, and Humphries said sensors installed in 2020 show the settlement has stabilized.
There are a variety of solutions to address the impact of climate change on permafrost, including thermosyphons, carbon dioxide-filled tubes that can extract heat from the ground. Researchers at the Northwest Territories Geological Survey are also looking at whether compacting the snow will lower temperatures and slow the thawing of permafrost.
Hill added that the Beaufort Sea Coastal Rehabilitation Project, which focuses on retrograde meltwater stagnation along the Kugmarit Bay coast, was completed last year. Researchers have explored the possibility of using native plant species to green coastlines and reduce surface temperatures, she said, with positive results.
“A limitation of many engineering solutions is that they are really only effective in a small area,” Humphries said, noting that they can be costly and labor intensive. “They are not well suited for widespread application.”
This report by the Canadian Press Agency was first published on July 16, 2023.