Network research focuses on the big questions: Where and when is permafrost thaw occurring in Canada and what are the hazards arising from such change?

The goal of NSERC PermafrostNet is to boost Canada’s ability to adapt by informing forward-looking decision making in an Arctic that is undergoing accelerating change. Network research will allow us to generate better information for all of Canada by creating new predictive capabilities with data that is already available as well as that generated by selected new field projects. These are necessary to fill important gaps in understanding, to develop novel methods and to increase the robustness of methods and practices through joint application with partners. The network will investigate issues of importance to northern partners with practical solutions in mind and with a perspective of understanding future infrastructure needs in a changing permafrost environment.

The research is organized in five interwoven themes requiring a critical mass and diversity of expertise that no single research group or government agency has.

Some sections below are currently only available in English.

Permafrost, defined as 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. 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 (three 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, 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, further increasing global warming.

Many Canadian organizations are mandated to generate, mobilize or use permafrost knowledge. These include territorial geological surveys and the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), 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 organizations, Land 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. NSERC 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.

This network’s contribution is conceptualized in a risk-reduction framework where responsible development—fiscally, environmentally and socially—includes adaptation planning for anticipated change. Permafrost thaw affects risk via hazards and exposure and, where driven by climate change, this is beyond our immediate control. Development affects exposure and vulnerability and can additionally change risk via permafrost thaw. Better permafrost and adaptation knowledge can reduce risk by enabling responsible development. Because of climate change, permafrost and adaptation knowledge must include future scenarios. 

  1. Quantify, understand and predict permafrost thaw and its consequences. This gap exists because global climate change was not of concern when the foundation of permafrost science was established by researchers several decades ago.
  2. Connect spatial scales from individual sites to national-scale prediction and assessment and from field measurements to satellite-based remote sensing and Earth-system modeling. This is important because corresponding knowledge and capabilities are currently part of scientific disciplines that are poorly connected with permafrost science.
  3. Prototype reliable and useful data and knowledge products for stakeholders and develop relevant next practices with them. This gap exists because insufficient linkages exist between new scientific research, engineering and application of new knowledge in government, communities and industry.
  1. Characterisation of permafrost. This theme will improve the understanding of ground-ice loss and its consequences though better characterisation of permafrost in the field and in laboratories so that prediction can better represent processes during thaw and have relevant subsurface input such as ground-ice content.
  2. Monitoring of permafrost change. This theme will reveal and quantify permafrost change in Canada and contribute to understanding its varying rates and expressions at the land surface.
  3. Prediction of permafrost change. This theme will improve the accuracy and delivery of transient permafrost simulation based on climate data, remote sensing and novel subsurface data so that the model results can support stakeholder needs at local and national scales.
  4. Hazards and impacts associated with permafrost thaw. This theme will elucidate the relevance and the controls of permafrost hazards and thaw-induced impacts. Furthermore, it will improve their prediction to support adaptation decisions based on avoiding exposure and reducing vulnerability.
  5. Adaptation to permafrost thaw. This theme will assist northern communities, governments and industry to plan for and manage the changing permafrost environment by providing specific strategies to minimise permafrost thaw and to reduce exposure and vulnerability of infrastructure.
  1. Data products that will be useable for stakeholders and include interoperable databases of permafrost observations from field and laboratory as well as predictions of permafrost characteristics, change and resulting hazards. This is valuable because it enables a new class of evidence-based adaptation, for example by providing ensemble scenarios of likely future permafrost change.
  2. Synthesis reporting on observed and anticipated permafrost change. The diversity and critical mass of the network offer a unique chance to synthesise insight gained from observations and simulations, to put them into a wider societal and scientific context and to identify critical gaps in knowledge and capabilities. This is valuable because more accurate and nuanced knowledge and communication of permafrost change in Canada will enable better decisions.
  3. Next practices. We will report on the next practices that arise across themes from the experience gathered in applying novel methods or data and taking new approaches to practical problems in a multi-sectorial context. This is valuable because it supports the translation of new knowledge and experience into application beyond the network.
  1. Understanding. The network will produce new insight into the behavior of frozen soil during thaw, the distribution of ground ice and the relationships connecting climate, infrastructure, permafrost thaw and observable impacts. This has value because it provides an improved foundation for permafrost research and engineering in a warming world, where permafrost can no longer be considered to be stable. Benefits for participants arise from early access to new knowledge that will allow to better address permafrost thaw, for example, through improved engineering design and land-use planning. Because more than one-third of Canada’s landmass is underlain by permafrost, there is significant intrinsic value in understanding the pervasive and persistent transformations of its Arctic landmass.
  2. Methods. The network will produce novel methods and techniques for measuring and simulating thawing permafrost and for inferring or predicting permafrost characteristics for the present day and for future climate scenarios. This has value because methods and tools are important for translating knowledge into action in response to different environmental configurations and contexts. The exploitation of new capabilities will be accelerated by next practices that will evolve in the network. Benefits for participants arise from early access to novel methods that open up new possibilities for research and for addressing challenges of importance to stakeholders.
  3. Experts. Network participants will face new challenges and innovate pathways to their solutions. In addition to discipline-specific education, network HQP will have familiarity with multiple scientific disciplines, understand applied problems related to permafrost and have novel skills in data science and computer simulation. Many will gain awareness of the complementarity of Indigenous ways of knowing and the importance of reciprocity in guiding how research is planned, conducted and delivered. This has value because stakeholders need new and multi-talented permafrost experts who can investigate, assess and design for permafrost thaw. This is mostly a new field of research and the network will produce and elevate a new cohort of early and mid-career scholars at a time when many preeminent permafrost scholars in Canada are nearing retirement. Expertise is also generated in partner organisations though the differentiated involvement of strategic management, permafrost scientists and experts in Indigenous communities and agencies.
  4. Community. The network will add cohesion and reduce fragmentation in the Canadian permafrost community through shared understanding of challenges and the contributions that individual researchers, organisation or disciplines can make towards their solution. The strengthened interactions connecting individuals and organisations involved in research, engineering and practice have value because they empower northern communities and agencies, or those focused on northern issues, to better manage future development and climate adaptation. It also improves academic research and discovery through new research questions and hypotheses developed based on stakeholder needs. The benefits for network participants derive from a broadened research and training environment.

Peer-reviewed research findings are listed on our Publications page.