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Study to examine global warming's impact on permafrost

As climate change leads to higher arctic temperatures, melting permafrost across Canada’s north could cause problems for ecosystems and infrastructure.

A new Canada-wide research project launched last week is looking at those impacts and how communities can adapt to them.

"[Permafrost] covers a lot of our country and the climate is getting warmer and the warmth is going into the surface, down into the soil and deepening this active layer, that layer that melts each year above the permafrost," said Greg Henry a professor at the University of British Columbia and lead researcher for the wildlife and vegetation slice of the project.

"Melting the permafrost means melting the base on which structures are now built," he said. "Engineering with permafrost is difficult enough, but if the permafrost is now melting it adds a whole new complication to building pipelines and bridges and sewage systems and water delivery systems to communities and dock structures for deep water ports."

The project, called Arctic Development and Adaptation to Permafrost in Transition or ADAPT, will study the environmental impact of thawing permafrost and create an adaptation strategy. The team of 15 researchers from 10 Canadian universities will study the impacts of changing permafrost and snow conditions on the tundra ecosystems and northern communities and industries.

Researchers will also work with organizations from other countries including France, the U.S., Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Research sites for the project are spread across Northern Canada from Yukon to Labrador.

The project is funded by a $4 million-over-four-years research grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

One aspect of Henry’s research will focus on landslides caused by melting permafrost. His previous research has shown him that tundra vegetation can recover from a landslide but it can take almost a century. Now, though, Henry has noticed that ecosystems aren’t recovering like they used to.

"Right now we’re finding that they get disturbed again and again and again because they don’t get a chance to stabilize because the temperature keeps rising and [the permafrost] keeps melting and they keep sliding," he said.

These are just anecdotal findings right now he said. "It’s what I’ve observed because I go fly over these sites practically every summer and I’ve noticed that they’ve started to slide more often." His first point of business when his research commences will be to confirm his observations.

Another aspect of the ADAPT project will focus on the impact on the carbon balance of melting permafrost and engineering adaptations for northern communities and industry. Henry said estimates of carbon stored in the soils of permafrost areas range from 20 to 35 per cent of global soil carbon. Warming these soils, he said, will create a positive-feedback, but there won’t be anything positive about it.

"We warm the arctic, it warms up the soil, the soils produce more carbon dioxide and that causes more warming," he said. Other greenhouse gases could also be given off by this warming soil including methane and nitrous oxide.

The ultimate goal of ADAPT is to provide better information on what is happening now, what could happen, and how we can adapt as permafrost currently covering approximately 50 per cent of Canada’s landmass continues to melt, he said. "Some of the research that led to us putting this together is already leading to decisions by communities in Nunavik and northern Quebec."

Michel Allard from Laval University, for example, has been working with the community of Salluit, Que. to determine how changing permafrost could affect development. Allard is also a lead researcher for the ADAPT project.

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