Permafrost thaw will change Canada’s North as we know it

Prof. Stephan Gruber, is Carleton’s new Canada Research Chair. His research focusses on permafrost. (Jeannette Noetzli Photo)

Drastic changes in vegetation, water quality problems and skyrocketing development costs: just three ways Canada’s north will change as a result of the gradual thawing of permafrost below the earth’s surface.

But just how bad is the problem? That’s what a new Canada Research Chair studying the effects of permafrost thaw in the north is hoping to figure out.

“Given what we know about climate change large areas will show drastic changes,” Carleton’s Stephan Gruber says. “We have booked this for the decades and centuries to come.”

Permafrost isn’t supposed to thaw – the often thick layer of soil or rock below the earth’s surface usually remains frozen even as a thin layer near the surface freezes and thaws through the seasons. However, in recent years, more and more permafrost around the world is entering a state of persistent thawing due to rising atmospheric temperatures, Gruber says.

It might not seem like such a big deal but, in many areas, permafrost essentially keeps a lot of things frozen in place, Gruber says. “If you take out the ice (or even just some of it) then the physical properties change.” The unfreezing of deep soil can trigger rockslides, increase methane emissions, change surface hydrology and even affect water quality, he says.

“For more than our lifetime, most permafrost will be in a state of slow decay,” he says. “We can’t be fooled by the idea that climate change may only be a conjecture of scientists and it’s just a cycle that will go back tomorrow. We’re missing a chance here. By acknowledging the fact that there is a drastic, ongoing, long-term change of climate, we have a chance to look ahead, think about what happens with our environment, and act and adapt accordingly.”

Gruber’s research will help decision-makers know what to expect as they plan for future development in the north.

But it isn’t as simple as just plunging a thermometer into the ground. Gruber is working on a method to study soil composition to determine water and ice content. He will also use computer models to simulate changes in ground properties.

While permafrost thaw is a massive problem, Gruber is honoured to be called in to help Canada assess the situation and prepare for the future.

“I feel, in a very humble way, moved to be selected by Canada to contribute in my little part to its issues,” he says. “By planning ahead we give ourselves room to manoeuvre.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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