Until recent decades, researchers could be confident that their studies about permafrost told the tale about this frozen phenomenon, which is known to underlie one-third of Canada. Permafrost is defined as ground that has remained at a temperature of zero degrees Celsius or less for two or more years. Climate change began to show its effects, and in doing so destabilized the certainties of a generation of research.
Worrying changes to the natural landscape makes new research even more imperative. For example, thawing in the north, where mining companies used to bury by-products from their operations, means that those pits are no longer seen as reliable containers. Relatively resistant to climate in the past, in 2016 the Dempster highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories was cut in 14 places by landslides and washouts. Incidents like these signal the need not only for further studies, but also for enhanced information sharing with researchers across disciplines.
Enter NSERC PermafrostNet, a new research network based at Carleton University and involving researchers from 12 universities and over 40 partnering organizations including those in industry, Indigenous communities and government agencies nationally and internationally. PermafrostNet was one of only two Strategic Partnership Grants for Networks awarded in 2019 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Awarded $5.5 million, the new network aims to boost Canada’s ability to monitor, predict and adapt to large-scale permafrost thaw. Partners and participating institutions contribute an additional $0.6 million cash and $4.4 million in-kind support.
Steve Kokelj, Permafrost Scientist at the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, says “I view the Permafrost Network to be a potential game-changer for Canadian Permafrost Research. One aspect of the network is that it will foster collaboration across a diverse community of researchers and northern stakeholders. The network can create an environment where universities, government and northern organizations work together to develop the knowledge and capacity to overcome the growing permafrost related challenges faced by northerners now and into the coming decades.”
Stephan Gruber, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Impacts/Adaptation in Northern Canada is a principal investigator for NSERC PermafrostNet. He says that the idea for a network gained momentum at a workshop in 2017, where 60 people from different levels of government and academia across Canada gathered to assess what was needed to move forward with research and improved practice in this area.
The network has since gained support from organizations across Canada. Carolyn Relf, Director of the Yukon Geological Survey, says that “Yukon is keen to support and participate in the network’s work, as climate change adaptation is a priority for Yukon government. Permafrost degradation is impacting communities and infrastructure across the territory, and the opportunity to collaborate in this research will enhance Yukon’s capacity to map permafrost and identify susceptible areas.”
Part of the network’s mandate will be to train 24 doctoral students, 17 master’s students, four postdoctoral fellows and 16 northern research assistants, fostering the next generation of scholars, practitioners and policy makers. Today, the network involves researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Laurentian University, Université de Montréal, University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, the Royal Military College of Canada, Simon Fraser University, University of Waterloo and the University of Victoria. Involved organizations include the Canada Nunavut Geoscience Office, Fort Severn First Nation to the Geological Survey of Canada and the Yukon government to name just a few of the 40.