Permafrost: Not So Permanent

What does the big thaw mean for us?

Permafrost: Not So Permanent

Climate change is altering Canada’s Arctic landscape in ways that are not yet fully understood. Repercussions, however, are already being felt by northern Canadians. Learn more about this issue and what you can do to help.

Some of the hardiest Canadians make a home and living in our country’s vast, remote north. These communities are built atop once-stable ground known as permafrost. But as climate change progresses, this landscape is changing. What does this mean for Canadians up north—and for the rest of the world?

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is any ground (but usually a thick layer of underground rock, soil, sand, and gravel) that remains at or below 0 C (32 F) for at least two consecutive years, and often indefinitely. Permafrost typically occurs in areas where the summers are not warm enough to thaw the ground under the surface: this includes Canada’s vast Arctic region.

What’s the big deal about permafrost?

This landscape may sound incredibly inhospitable, but permafrost contributes to a unique environment that is home to many species, such as the arctic hare, arctic fox, caribou, and grizzly bear.

In addition, permafrost stores an enormous quantity of carbon—the release of which propels climate change. Earth’s atmosphere currently contains an estimated 850 billion tonnes (937 billion US tons) of carbon, whereas the carbon stored in Arctic permafrost is estimated at between 1,400 billion and 1,850 billion tonnes (1,543 billion and 2,039 billion US tons).

How did all that carbon get there? In temperate environments, dead organic matter (such as dead plant and animal material) decays and is broken down by bacteria, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. However, in the cold Arctic, organic matter instead freezes, locking in all the carbon that otherwise would have found its way to the atmosphere. This frozen organic matter—including all that carbon—has been building up over thousands of years and is now buried in a thick layer of permafrost.

What happens as permafrost melts?

Impact on northern communities

Since the late 1990s, shallow permafrost in the Eastern and High Arctic of Canada has warmed considerably. As permafrost thaws and the earth softens, the impact on northern communities is significant. For instance, the remote community of Salluit (in Northern Quebec) at one point considered relocating the entire town after its fire station sank into the ground.

Carleton University student Brendan O’Neill is doing his PhD research on permafrost in the Peel Plateau region of the Northwest Territories.

“Changes to the landscape from permafrost degradation will undoubtedly be challenging for northerners, particularly if traditional food sources are affected and movement over the land is made more difficult by thawing ground,” says O’Neill.

He is investigating the impact of infrastructure—such as the Dempster Highway, the only all-season road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle—on permafrost conditions.

“In recent decades, warming air temperatures, combined with snow and water accumulation beside the highway embankment, have caused permafrost thaw at the roadside,” says O’Neill. “Heavy road maintenance has been necessary in some locations to keep the highway operational. The road is important because it links the NWT communities of Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic, and Inuvik to southern Canada.”

Impact on wildlife

Northern animals and plants are also struggling: as permafrost thaws, forest ecosystems are flooding and turning into wetlands. In areas where they were once plentiful, species such as caribou are becoming harder to find. This is impacting food security up north, as hunting (of caribou and other animals) is a traditional means of securing food for many northern Canadians, especially First Nations.

Impacts on climate: The good and the ugly

The climate change impacts of thawing permafrost are rather complicated. During the summer growing season, arctic plants take in carbon, effectively reducing carbon in the atmosphere. As such, the Arctic currently acts as a “carbon sink.” In fact, as climate change progresses and permafrost warms and thaws, growing seasons in northern regions will last longer. This will theoretically allow plants to take in more carbon from the atmosphere. In the short term at least, this is good news.

However, as permafrost thaws, organic matter that has been frozen for thousands of years will begin to decay, releasing methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 20 times as efficiently as carbon dioxide. Conceivably, a warming Arctic could lead us into a positive-feedback loop where methane released from thawing permafrost increases global temperature, which in turn causes more permafrost to thaw, and more methane to be released, and so on, until we head into a free fall where climate change becomes unstoppable.

Not all doom and gloom

“There is still some debate as to the severity of the permafrost problem. Some of the large-scale models don’t seem to prove out the sentiment from process scientists working on the ground,” says David Risk, Earth Sciences chair at St. Francis Xavier University. “By that, I mean that the greening of the Arctic will cause more aboveground biomass to be stored, and where the carbon balance will ultimately lie is a bit uncertain.”

In that uncertainty is room for hope.

“This is actually a quite exciting area of research. In the back of our minds, I think we all hope to discover that feedbacks from melting permafrost won’t be as bad as we think,” says Risk.

What can be done?

Support scientific research and innovation

Arctic scientists are working very hard to understand permafrost and catalogue the effects of its thaw. Unfortunately, over the last decade, scientists—in particular government scientists—have not been allowed to communicate their work and have seen funding for their research cut. There is hope that scientific integrity will be restored under our new government, but we need to remind our MPs to keep this a priority. Talk to your federal representative: ask them what they are doing to ensure support for our arctic scientists and research.

As well, we need to support investment in green technology and innovation. “There is an opportunity [here] for the development of new technologies that will indirectly contribute to preserving permafrost landscapes,” says O’Neill.

Make behavioural changes

Take ownership of your carbon footprint! Each small action you take to reduce it helps. “If we, as humans, can change our behaviour and reduce our greenhouse gas output, then we can potentially prevent the positive feedback loop of thawing permafrost, greenhouse gas release, and rising air temperatures,” says O’Neill.

“Everyone should pick one thing they can do about greenhouse gases, and start there,” says Risk. “People should also tell their neighbours what they’re doing, because peer pressure works.” [END]


Go down a shoe size

You’re already biking to work instead of driving and have retrofitted your home to be more energy efficient. Now you’re looking for more ways to live energy efficiently. Here are some lesser known ways to reduce your carbon footprint even more.

  • Use a laptop instead of a desktop computer for energy savings of as much as 50 percent.
  • Install light-coloured shingles, which help reduce cooling costs in the summer months (as opposed to dark-coloured shingles).
  • Filter your own water: bottled water produces a tremendous amount of trash and greenhouse gas before it finds its way to your hand.

Want to learn more?

For more information about permafrost and how climate changes are affecting it, check out these additional resources:

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