Supporting humans in a thawing landscape

Permafrost slump along Dempster HighwayPermafrost thaw induced by climate change impacts people living in the North in various ways. Changes in ground surface conditions damage buildings and infrastructure and compromise the security of transportation networks. Changes induced by permafrost thaw in the landscape have started to affect traditional subsistence activities and food security by altering the ecosystem and releasing harmful contaminants into the food chain.

This project uses an innovative, multidisciplinary, networked approach that puts emphasis on collaboration with communities, territorial governments, and other stakeholders across Northern Canada.  This collaborative approach is pivotal to address the concerns of northern people, ensure the optimal use of research efforts, facilitate adaptation, and increase resilience in northern communities. To do so, the team activities focus on:

  • Transportation infrastructure on permafrost, by investigating geohazards related to permafrost thaw to design adaptation and mitigation approaches;

  • Permafrost mapping in support of construction and land use management in Northern communities;

  • Assessing and explaining ecological changes on the land due to permafrost thaw by partnering with communities and first nations to increase the resilience of local communities to the impact of climate change;

  • Study permafrost thaw rates and processes in the field with high precision, innovative technologies. 

This research enhances the capacity of northern communities to foresee and adapt to environmental change by improving fundamental knowledge of permafrost thaw and partnering with northern communities to examine the applied consequences of this process for the management of land, infrastructure, and food security in permafrost terrain.

Project overview

The project has three main focuses:

1. First focus: Transportation Infrastructure on Permafrost:

Although recent research on transportation infrastructure in the Canadian North has led to a much better understanding of how roads and runways interact with permafrost, issues remain however, as more permafrost characterization still needs to be done alongside and in the surrounding area of some key infrastructure.  Solutions will be required for when adaptive designs are no longer capable of maintaining the frozen state of the ground underneath some of the infrastructure. Meanwhile, the most sensitive sectors must be put under close watch and new pre-warning technologies must be designed and applied to ensure the safety of public user.

Those questions are addressed by our team through research led on the Nunavik Airports, Qc, Iqaluit Airport, NU, and along Alaska and Dempster Highways, YT. New embankment designs and mitigation techniques are implemented and tested and monitoring is developed or improved to assess performance of the adaptation measures. Geohazards that typically impact northern linear infrastructure, such as retrogressive thaw slumps, are investigated using innovative multi-disciplinary techniques. Furthermore, an early detection and warning systems for transportation infrastructure impacted by permafrost-related geohazards is currently being developed for public safety along some of this infrastructure.

2. Second focus: Humans in the North - from communities to the land:

At a settlement scale, communities need the support of permafrost scientists to provide knowledge on spatial variation of local permafrost conditions for construction and land use management. Indigenous leaders also request that the next generation of managers be educated on the essentials of permafrost. Our team’s approach is pan-territorial.  Looking at the North globally, we aim to develop permafrost mapping and support risk-based land management on permafrost in Inuit communities of Nunavik, as well as to characterize permafrost for larger urban areas such as the Greater Whitehorse Area, YT, where a great diversity of land uses exist, from transportation networks to agricultural lands.

Community-based research at the landscape scale is also a major emerging endeavour. Indeed, many communities consulted during our work have expressed important concerns as they observe dramatic ecological changes on the land that affect their way of living. Even the release of greenhouse gases and contaminants such as mercury is a concern. In Nunavik, hunters from Kangiqsujjuaq report recently that drained lakes and changes in riverbed morphology affect their access to Arctic Char.  Echoing what is happening in Nunavik, in Old Crow, YT, lakes and ponds are affected by either catastrophic drainage or progressive reduction in water levels, which affects the ecosystems and traditional uses. Other examples include the shrubification of tundra and associated thaw of permafrost which transforms the lichen-covered berry-picking areas into bush. In all cases, the research requires an innovative approach incorporating both scientifically acquired biophysical data and traditional knowledge. On that landscape scale, our team is assessing and explaining ecological changes on the land due to permafrost thaw in various regions of the North, in Nunavik, Qc, Kugluktuk, NU, Old Crow, Champagne and Aishihik First Nation traditional territory, YT, Churchill area, MB, and Hudson Bay Lowlands, ON.

3. Third focus: Use of emerging and innovation technologies to better understand permafrost thaw:

Permafrost thaw is the underlying geocryological process at play at the infrastructure, community and landscape levels, yet it is still a poorly understood physical process. The physical processes leading to soil thaw consolidation and failure have never been observed in situ. Little is known about how melt water is redistributed in the ground and about the fate of gaseous inclusions during the transient process of thawing. The same observation applies to the changes of chemical and mechanical properties in thawing soils; this knowledge is fundamental when the time comes to understand the evolution of geotechnical properties of permafrost under a warming climate. It is true also for the fate of naturally occurring contaminants that have accumulated over thousands of years in frozen soils. Understanding those fundamental processes is essential for a more valid analysis and appreciation of the impacts of climate warming. Only approaches combining innovative technologies such as CT-scanning can allow significant breakthroughs. Pushing further the concept of scales, our team is developing the concept of Terra-CT (Terrain Computed Tomography), which addresses the concept of permafrost thaw at the scale of a study site.

Project team


Dr. Fabrice Calmels, Principal Investigator, Research Chair in Permafrost and GeoscienceYukonU Research Centre 

Dr. Michel Allard, Network Investigator, Laval University

Dr. Duane Froese, Network Investigator, University of Alberta

Dr. Pascale Roy-Léveillée, Network Investigator, Laval University



Territorial Organizations:

Yukon Highways and public

Yukon Geological Survey

Geoscience office, NWT

Government of Nunavut

Provincial Organizations:

Ministère des transports du Québec

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Science Branch

Kativik Regional Government

First Nations: 

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Government, YT

Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, YT.




Polar Continental Shelf Project


NTAI – Transport Canada

Polar Knowledge Canada