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

Background and objectives

Hazards are the phenomena that make permafrost thaw visible and relevant for people. We define a hazard as the potential occurrence of events in the natural system that may cause damage to infrastructure, environmental resources, ecosystems and health. Permafrost hazard research is often focused on obvious phenomena such as thaw slumps, coastal erosion or thermokarst features. These studies frequently focus on impacts rather than the underlying causal mechanisms, and in particular, a clear and quantitative linkage to permafrost change is missing for many phenomena. Permafrost hazard mapping is often empirically based and informed by known ground-ice distribution and related terrain factors. These approaches, however, are limited in their potential for broad application by the paucity of ground-ice data. This lack of knowledge and predictive capabilities about thaw-driven hazards is a key limitation in the planning and management of natural resources and infrastructure.

The objective of Theme 4 is to understand the relevance of and controls on impacts and hazards driven by permafrost thaw and improve their prediction so that it can support adaptation. This is important because impacts of permafrost thaw directly affect the integrity of transportation corridors and buildings, as well as local livelihoods including access to land, cultural resources and food and water security. Hazards on land include subsidence, slope instability, changes to the amount and timing of runoff as well as contaminant release. The graduate students and post-doctoral fellow in this theme gain experience collecting and analyzing multiscale and interdisciplinary information on permafrost hazards in our Canadian Arctic transects. The information collected is integrated with data and insights from Themes 1–3 to elucidate cause and effect relationships linking permafrost characteristics with hazards and associated impacts. In particular, information on permafrost characteristics and remotely-sensed observations of surface water is helpful in linking permafrost change in a variety of geomorphological and ecological settings to hazard formation.

Results from Theme 4 will allow us to prioritize hazards in terms of their relevance to government, community, and industry partners, and will improve understanding of natural hazards. Research will be influenced by two philosophies: (1) Research will be adaptive to partner needs and will involve our partners in a framework where they can provide input on research questions as well as the scale and scope of our research products. (2) We will increase awareness of emerging themes using surveys and interviews to identify potential surprises given our current understanding of rapid change in the Canadian north.

Pascale Roy-Léveillée

Pascale Roy-Léveillée

Theme 4 is jointly led by Pascale Roy-Léveillée (Université de Laval) and Jocelyn Hayley (University of Calgary). Pascale is working on terrain vulnerability to thaw, thermokarst development and recovery. Jocelyn Hayley is developing novel methods to characterise the geomechanical properties of permafrost upon thawing. Pascale, along with other investigators working within this theme will contribute expertise and experience in working with communities. Both will co-represent Theme 4 at the network level and organise theme activities open to all interested network participants. Seven researchers will be trained under Theme 4, consisting of 3 MSc, 3 PhD and 1 Post-Doctoral Fellow.

Jocelyn Hayley

Jocelyn Hayley

The main participants in the theme research combine expertise from varied permafrost settings and will develop strategies to integrate and enhance permafrost hazards research with the result from other themes. They contribute diverse expertise relating to permafrost thaw impacts and hazards through development of new strategies to identify changes to landscape, ecological and hydrological systems, and development of indicators of change for key hazards related to Canadian permafrost. 

Trevor Lantz is working on thermokarst development and recovery. 

Stephan Gruber is contributing mountain geohazards and permafrost simulation expertise.  

Brian Moorman is working on permafrost evolution and remote sensing. 

Melissa Lafrenière is working on the hydro- and biochemistry of permafrost watersheds. 

Sub-theme research

Theme 4, structured around two sub-themes, is considering both conventional thermokarst hazards, such as thaw slumps and land subsidence, as well as permafrost-related impacts on key environmental resources such as water quality and traditional land access. Projects will benefit from the network approach to characterization (Theme 1), monitoring (Theme 2) and prediction (Theme 3) of permafrost.

The prioritisation sub-theme has the objective to understand the relevance of differing hazards related to permafrost thaw for stakeholders so that prediction efforts can be prioritised, and outputs made useful. For this, we are designing and distributing a survey to assess our partners’ perceptions of hazard importance or impacts. This will allow us to prioritise hazards and to understand how our partners would like to see Theme 4 products delivered. We are also performing an expert opinion survey among network researchers and international permafrost scientists and engineers. Expert opinion surveys rely on collective wisdom and identify emerging trends that may require increased attention in our network’s research design. Results will inform Theme 4 research and may also lead to new questions to be addressed using the modeling approaches of Theme 3. In the final phase of NSERC PermafrostNet, we will synthesise Theme 4 knowledge and data, along with related activities of other Themes, into quantitative assessments. Analyses will help to determine whether additional data, for example through expansion of monitoring networks, are likely to lead to improved management outcomes. Use of structured interview methodology to assess hazard prediction capabilities, relative magnitudes of socio-economic impacts and our partners’ perceptions about the benefits of additional monitoring of each type of hazard. This data will help draft quantitative recommendations for next practices related to Theme 4 activities, though this activity will identify important gaps in data or understanding relevant to all themes and partners.

Recruiting (T4-PDF1) 

Title: Scientific and stakeholder surveys to prioritize thaw impacts and hazards. 

Supervisors:  Pascale Roy-Levéillée

This project studies permafrost hazards through a series of workshops, surveys, and interviews with multiple stakeholders, including Indigenous communities. It aims to gather a range of perspectives on permafrost thaw related hazards and identify key knowledge gaps to guide Theme 4 outcomes, and, more broadly, national adaptation plans for long-term permafrost thaw.

The prediction subtheme has the objective to understand how hazards are controlled by permafrost thaw and develop prediction methods that can be useful to stakeholders. It will focus on the functioning of permafrost thaw-related hazards by investigating thaw slumps, thaw ponds and lakes, rock fall, loss of peat plateaus, flooding and changes to water quality. This sub-theme will develop tools for prediction and generate practices for predicting and managing key permafrost thaw-related impacts and hazards. For example, we know basic landscape predictors of thaw slump initiation but lack the knowledge framework to make localised predictions of their initiation or expansion over time. Widespread permafrost thaw and ice-wedge degradation around the circumpolar north have dramatic consequences for food security (caribou and fish habitat), stability of land for traplines, and infrastructure security such as ice roads. We know little about where wetlands and thaw lakes will form, continue to grow and expand, or stabilise and recover permafrost near the surface. Some hazards, such as water quality changes resulting from the mobilisation of materials previously stabilised within permafrost have no visible indicators, making scientific knowledge and predictive capability especially important. For example, this includes increased solute and nutrient transfer, organic carbon with varying bioavailability in the surface water environment and contaminants. The projects in this sub-theme will collect multi-scale data, interact with partners and develop predictive tools to understand hotspots of permafrost change and associated hazards.

Kaitlyn Diederichs (T4-MSc3)

Title: Spatial prediction of thaw slumps

Supervisors:  Lantz with Morse and Kokelj; internship with NTGS

Kaitlyn’s project focuses on understanding the spatial distribution of permafrost thaw driven slope failure using a combination of field surveys, GIS inventories and drill core analysis. Kaitlyn hopes to develop a predictive model of terrain susceptibility to slope failure.

Emilie Stewart-Jones and Pia Blake (T4-PhD1)

Title: Understanding and prediction of thaw-induced mass movement in steep mountains 

Supervisors: Stephan Gruber, Geertsema and Krautblatter, internship: FLNR, Tombstone.

Emilie and Pia’s masters projects are investigating and predicting thaw-induced mass movements in mountain permafrost terrain. These projects provide valuable understanding of permafrost change in the steep mountains of Canada and the effectiveness of climate control on landslides.

Emilie’s project will generate permafrost simulations specifically for steep mountain areas. The project will: (a) collect and harmonize existing and new field evidence of temperature and prominent mass movements such as rock glaciers and rock fall in mountains, and (b) optimize and test the simulation tools generated in Theme 3 for application in steep mountains.

Pia’s project will work with slopes which are at angles between 30 and 70 degrees, where snow accumulation and avalanches are possible.  This project will: a) develop a simulation of permafrost in heterogeneous (some debris, some snow) steep bedrock slopes in western Canada, and b) conduct a descriptive analysis of temperature and metrics related to permafrost thaw for important past slope instabilities.

The methods developed in these projects will enable forward-looking hazard zonation around infrastructure in steep mountains with permafrost and can contribute to future predictive and mitigation solutions.

Emilie Stewart-Jones
Pia Blake

Andrew Clark (T4-PhD4)  

Title: Early warning detection of slope failure to enable hazard forecasting. 

Supervisors: Brian Moorman and Bernhard Rabus.

Andrew’s project is focused on remote sensing of Arctic coasts in the Western Canadian Arctic. Specifically, his PhD research investigates the volumetric change along Arctic coasts by leveraging the availability of 3D data from ArcticDEM and UAV-SfM datasets. This work will be used to better understand the role of Arctic coastal erosion on the climate system and in carbon cycling. Further, Andrew’s research introduces techniques for automating coastal feature extraction by using object-based image analysis, which creates boundary features for characterizing the coastal zone but also makes contributions to large scale monitoring of Arctic coastal erosion.

Andrew Clark

Erika Hille (T4-PhD5)

Title: Characterizing the sensitivity and response of Arctic streams and rivers to permafrost thaw.

Supervisors: Melissa Lafrenière with Steve Kokelj.

Erika’s research looks at how and why the response of aquatic systems to permafrost thaw varies between contrasting permafrost landscapes across the Canadian Arctic. 

The overarching goal of Erika’s project is to develop a conceptual framework for characterizing the sensitivity and response of Arctic streams and rivers to permafrost thaw. Erika is addressing key gaps in our understanding of how landscape factors influence the hydrology and water quality of streams and rivers in the western Canadian Arctic. Erika’s project is identifying the environmental catchment-level factors that control spatial variability in the biogeochemical responses of peatland stream catchments to ice wedge degradation. She is also examining how carbon-rich peatland tributary streams influence the biogeochemical response of river networks to retrogressive thaw slumping and investigating how permafrost thaw is modifying groundwater flow pathways to Arctic rivers in winter. Erika is carrying out community consultations with the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee and the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation and collaborating with them on the project. Several rainfall events during early August 2018 led to an overland flooding event in Resolute. The community was forced to respond by trenching several roads in the community to drain flood waters from the vicinity of buildings. This project is quantifying and analyzing relationships between permafrost characteristics and ground ice across different geomorphic and vegetative settings, and integrating these results with slope and drainage conditions, potential erosion zones, hydrological change and the frequency and magnitude of flooding events. Through this research Erika is determining what type of active layer and permafrost conditions cause hydrologic systems to become flashier and more sensitive to changing precipitation.

Lea Cornette (T4-MSc4) 

Title: Permafrost frost thaw-induced disturbance of soil nutrient status linked to plot- and ecosystem gas exchanges.

Supervisors:  Oliver Sonnentag

Danielle Chiasson (T4-MSc5)  

Title: Permafrost recovery in drained lakes and ponds. 

Supervisors:  Pascale Roy-Léveillée.

Danielle is identifying controls on permafrost recovery rates and limits in drained lake and pond basins. This project is working in Old Crow Flats, along with other network projects and members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, collecting peat samples and cores for study.

Old Crow Flats is an arctic lowland ecosystem within the continuous permafrost zone of northern Yukon. The region is composed of thousands of lakes, meandering rivers, and permafrost features. Most of the lakes are susceptible to change through erosion, expansion, and eventual drainage, leaving behind large drainage basins. This project is investigating the evolution of drained basins older than 100 years within the forest/tundra ecotone and comparing their evolution with recently drained lakes. There are two objectives 1) Characterize vegetation succession and post-drainage permafrost restoration of ancient lakes and 2) Examine whether the rapid landscape change we see today (last 100 years) is typical or accelerated by climate change.

The study sites are located on drained lake basins in the boreal forest/tundra ecotone in Old Crow Flats, Yukon, within the Traditional Territory of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Permafrost is 60 m thick in Old Crow Flats, with active layer thicknesses ranging from 25 to 55 cm at the study sites. The terrestrial surface of the tundra sites is dominated by a mixture of vertical shrub tundra and dwarf shrub tundra, as well as sphagnum-dominated peatlands. Remnant ponds in the basins support an abundance of aquatic macrophytes and floating mats. Peat samples have been collected from various basins for carbon dating, along with preliminary geophysics to determine whether permafrost is recovering within the basin since drainage. Further research includes reconstructing vegetation succession within the basins. Peat and sediment cores will be analyzed for macrofossils and pollen.

Danielle Chiasson

Nicole Corbiere (T4-MSc6) 

Title: Mercury and methylmercury concentrations in drained basin complexes in Old Crow Flats, Yukon, Canada

Supervisors:  Pascale Roy-Léveillée.

Collaborators and partners

  • F. Calmels 
  • S.V. Kokelj 
  • M. Packalen 
  • S. MacDougall 
  • C. Stevens 
  • P. Morse 
  • M. Geertsema 
  • L. Arenson 
  • L. Fishback 

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