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2010 Expedition of the Year

A ground collapse in the Yukon, where an ice wedge thawed in permafrost. (Photo: Antoni Lewkowicz)

Permafrost on defrost
Antoni Lewkowicz has seen the not so subtle signs of warming permafrost in Canada’s North: a buckling Yukon highway and the aftermath of a landslide near Carmacks, in southern Yukon, that formed a bowl about 30 metres deep, dumped debris into a salmonfishing river and destroyed a forest at the bottom of a valley. While it’s clear that climate change is affecting this frozen layer of ground throughout the Arctic, it is difficult to detect where and how fast it is thawing until after it has happened, says the University of Ottawa geography professor, who has studied permafrost for the past 35 years. “Our ability to predict how long it will take,” he says, “and where it will take place is limited.”

Antoni Lewkowicz (at right) with students Christina Miceli and Max Duguay. (Photo: Christina Miceli)
As part of a long-term study on changes in permafrost conditions, Lewkowicz and graduate students Christina Miceli and Max Duguay set up monitoring stations last summer at 10 sites along a 1,300-kilometre stretch of the Alaska Highway between Fort St. John, B.C., and Whitehorse. Lewkowicz was awarded the $25,000 Expedition of the Year for 2010 from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, financed by the RBC Blue Water Project.

The sites were chosen along the same stretch of highway studied by permafrost expert Roger Brown in 1964. Permafrost has since disappeared at half the sites where it was found in Brown’s survey. Nine of the 10 locations monitored by Lewkowicz and his students have a thin layer of permafrost — less than 10 metres thick — and are therefore very sensitive to climate change. “It could be that the permafrost at these sites will disappear even in my lifetime,” says Lewkowicz.

The goal of the research is to better understand how thinning permafrost will affect the North’s ecology and freshwater resources, as well as infrastructure like roads and pipelines, and how it can precipitate natural hazards such as landslides. “It’s only by doing this kind of long-term project that we will get the answers concerning how fast permafrost will thaw,” says Lewkowicz. “The Society and the RBC Blue Water Project are investing in work that will carry on for a long time.”

— Monique Roy-Sole

Climate Change and Permafrost
Antoni Lewkowicz, Christina Miceli and Max Duguay
Supported by the RBC Blue Water Project®

Click map to enlarge
Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

Christina Miceli

Read Christina’s blog ...

The 2010 Expedition of the Year examined permafrost temperatures in the Yukon and northern British Columbia.   Nearly half of Canada’s landmass is in a permafrost zone, but despite its abundance, Canadian permafrost is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And that in turn, impacts on fresh water resources in northern Canada.

“We know we are losing permafrost in the southern fringe, where its temperature is very close to zero” says Antoni Lewkowicz.  ”So if you raise the temperature by one or two degrees, the permafrost just can’t exist anymore and will disappear.”

Just as permafrost is affected by weather fluctuations, it can also be a useful measure of climate change.  “By carefully analyzing the temperatures as we go down into the ground, we actually see whether the climate has warmed or not,” says Lewkowicz.  “The deeper you go, the further back in time you look.  It’s a bit like an astronomer looking back into the universe.”

The 2010 research expedition will update a detailed map of the study area based upon permafrost field measurements and modeling using geographic information systems, to reflect the changing boundaries of the permafrost zones.

Quotes from Professor Lewkowicz extracted from:
Cold Mysteries: Seeking Answers to Our Changing Cimate, TABARET magazine, University of Ottawa


More information:

Microsoft PowewrPoint download Presentation on Permafrost Study Results (Microsoft PowerPoint document)


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