PermafrostNet unites key scholars and stakeholders from government agencies, industry and Indigenous communities with the common goal of boosting Canada’s ability to adapt to permafrost thaw. Network research focuses on understanding and predicting permafrost thaw and its consequences, to connect scales from field sites to national-scale prediction and to prototype knowledge products and practices with stakeholders.

Permafrost underlies 35–50% of the Canadian land surface. Most of this area will experience persistent loss of subsurface ice in the 21st century, leading to irreversible landscape transformations, profound challenges for the design and maintenance of infrastructure and threats to the health of northerners.

PermafrostNet offers the critical mass, diversity of expertise and communication that no single research group or government agency has. It supports the work of 15 professors at 11 universities and has 31 collaborators and more than 40 partnering organizations nationally and internationally. The network will train 24 doctoral students, 17 Master’s students, four postdoctoral fellows and 16 northern research assistants.

PermafrostNet is funded by partners and participating institutions along with $5.5 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grants for Networks.  

Permafrost, ground remaining below 0°C for at least two consecutive years, is a product of a cold climate. It commonly extends to depths of tens or hundreds of metres and has been frozen for centuries to millennia. During thaw, permafrost changes fundamentally, as is intuitively understood from the difference between concrete-like frozen soil and soft, wet mud or liquefied slurry. The complex and long-term interactions of climate, geology and ecology determine ground temperature and ice content, making them difficult to predict and variable at short distance. Unlike snow or vegetation, permafrost cannot easily be observed from satellites or aircraft as it is hidden beneath the active layer, the surface layer of the ground that thaws each summer.

Climate change is causing permafrost thaw through increased atmospheric temperature and changes in rainfall and snow. Air temperature in Canada, north of 60º, increased by 2.2ºC in 1948–2013 (3 times the global average) and precipitation has also increased. The trends and conditions in the Canadian North are without precedence in historic time or since the beginning of the last glaciation about 120,000 years ago. Permafrost thaw, the gradual melt of subsurface ice that often has existed for centuries or millennia, causes significant changes to soil behaviour, such as loss of strength, and can disrupt natural systems and the built environment. Thaw may lead to subsidence on flat ground, but to landslides on hillslopes. Climate change and disturbance from development or forest fires interact and often amplify each other in their effect on permafrost conditions. Thawing of permafrost, due to the high latent heat of fusion of ice, is much slower than warming of ground without ice. As a result, the consequences of the gradual loss of subsurface ice will persist for decades to centuries in many locations. Widespread permafrost thaw also leads to release of greenhouse gases from carbon currently entombed in frozen ground, increasing global warming.

Many Canadian organisations are mandated to generate, mobilise or use permafrost knowledge. These include the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and territorial geological surveys, Transport Canada (TC) and territorial departments of transportation, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMED), Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), northern research institutes and colleges, Indigenous organisations, Lands and Water Boards, as well as a broad range of industries and corporations. Permafrost, which is inherently data sparse but also changing rapidly, requires coordinated research and partnership across the country for generating relevant knowledge and translating it into effective action. PermafrostNet, by focusing on data integration, synthesis and prediction will consolidate insight and efforts across the country and build the innovative methods and techniques for data handling and prediction needed by Canadians.

Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy opens with the statement “The Arctic is fundamental to Canada’s national identity.” When a large part of this foundation is changing, then understanding this change becomes a priority. PermafrostNet is strategic because it will inform policy, shape practice and focus research related to a new and rapidly growing challenge. It is urgent and a strategic priority for Canada because permafrost thaw is an emergent challenge for which it currently lacks preparation and that will have a profound influence on its landmass.

Coordinated research on permafrost thaw in Canada is not optional; it is urgently required in order to mitigate a crisis that is clearly visible already, that is expected to intensify and that will dominate the Canadian North throughout the 21st century. With its focus on data integration and pilot projects using machine learning, PermafrostNet builds a foundation for the informed use of artificial intelligence and big data analytics as emerging technologies to support climate change adaptation in Canada’s north. Finally, the network’s intense northern focus and attention to Indigenous involvement make it a strategic step toward building a diversified and competitive research base. Canada has vast mineral deposits, oil and gas reserves, and renewable resources from forestry, animal populations and fisheries. A large proportion of these resources are situated in the Arctic where permafrost and its thaw affect the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure, as well as land reclamation and waste management.

The observed and anticipated impacts of permafrost thaw are profound and will persist for decades. They occur at the landscape scale due to climate change and at the site level due to disturbance from human activity, infrastructure or wildfire. As permafrost thaw changes land surface and hydrologic systems, it may also transform the location and character of cumulative effects from human activity. Effective solutions for economically competitive development of Arctic resources need to be well informed and forward-looking, founded on reliable evidence and predictions. Permafrost knowledge and products, such as predictions of future permafrost conditions, are required for minimising risk for ecosystems and infrastructure in the long term. Equally, the systematic monitoring, scientific and community-based, of permafrost, in the built environment and for revealing shifting ecological baselines, is a prerequisite for evidence-based decision making in a changing Arctic.

The strategic need for updated permafrost knowledge is evident in policy documents and reports that concern the future of the North. We have analysed 33 reports authored from the perspectives of Inuit, communities, territories (i.e. Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut), Canada as a nation and international policy and assessment. The total number of times that keywords such as permafrost (1,388), infrastructure (2,446), climate change (11,619) and adaptation (7,822) are mentioned in these reports attests to their relevance. Even this coarse analysis reveals differences in scope and perspectives, underscoring the need for a network in informing policy on multiple levels of government in Canada and for fostering corresponding connections.

PermafrostNet builds on previous initiatives with permafrost components and consolidates and links their outcomes. These include ADAPT (Arctic Development and Adaptation to Permafrost in Transition, NSERC Discovery Frontiers, 2011–2015), the CCRN (Changing Cold Regions Network, NSERC Climate Change and Atmospheric Research, 2013–2018) and the CNRCWP (Canadian Network for Regional Climate and Weather Processes, NSERC Climate Change and Atmospheric Research, 2013–2018).

The collaborative research environment we envision to build in this partnership network is based on six principles:

  1. Our research culture is respectful, inclusive and open to learning from Indigenous research methods.
  2. Network activities support relationships and network participants support each other in achieving common objectives.
  3. We seek and incorporate traditional knowledge and northern knowledge and we contribute to capacity building in the north.
  4. We use open publishing for research results, computer code and data, and we cultivate open dialogue about authorship and acknowledgement of contributions.
  5. We listen to HQP feedback and support HQP-led initiatives.
  6. We undertake to constrain carbon emissions, recognising the competing needs for mitigating climate change and researching adaptation options.

These principles serve to guide network management and participants. The governance and management structure is designed to keep the evolving network on track, engaged, relevant, agile and accountable. The overarching objective thereby is to enable and improve the connections and relationships between the researchers and partners as these are critical for the success of the network and also one of its major outcomes.

Many partner organisations have members who will also be network collaborators. PermafrostNet’s board of directors has overall responsibility for the management, direction and fiduciary accountability and relies on the scientific committee for scientific leadership in managing and ensuring the execution of the research program and in overseeing the production of network outputs.Strategic direction of PermafrostNet is further supported by committees for communication and knowledge mobilisation as well as for equity, diversity and inclusion. A full-time network research manager provides direction for all operations and ensures good communication, control and accountability on a day-to-day basis. Each research theme will be led by two experienced academics.