Protecting our “not-so” frozen assets
Collapsing buildings, frequent landslides and increased infrastructure costs are the potential consequences of disappearing permafrost in Canada’s north.
With so much at stake, scientists need to better understand how permafrost zones—which cover half of Canada’s land mass—are impacted by climate change, says geography professor Antoni Lewkowicz, who is collaborating with northern researchers to improve the collection and interpretation of permafrost data in Canada.
Working with the Yukon Geological Survey, Lewkowicz and doctoral researcher Phil Bonnaventure are measuring temperatures at 100 monitoring stations in order to develop spatial models of permafrost distribution for the central and southern Yukon. With the Yukon Department of Highways, they are using innovative electrical imaging technology to provide detailed views of the thickness and ice content of permafrost.
Lewkowicz says information from these studies will help communities like Dawson City, built primarily on permafrost, to adapt building design and construction to accommodate warming ground. He says they will also be used to create better planning tools for infrastructure projects such as gas pipelines, which will be built across areas that risk becoming unstable or hazardous as permafrost thaws.
In a complementary project, Lewkowicz is teaming up with University of Ottawa colleague and Geological Survey of Canada researcher Sharon Smith and masters student Megan James to examine permafrost persistence at more than 40 sites along the Alaska Highway and compare their findings to those recorded at the same sites in the mid 1960s. Their data will help determine actual permafrost thaw over the past four decades and serve as a predictor of future warming impacts along this major northern transportation route.
"Our ultimate goal," notes Lewkowicz, "is to produce permafrost data that helps government policy makers and northern communities respond to the challenges of protecting the environment, while facilitating resource development that benefits Canadians."
By Greg Higgins
Published: March 2009