Group studying Nunavik’s melting permafrost gets cash boost

Thaw due to climate change is impacting infrastructure, way of life in northern region

By Cedric Gallant, Nunatsiaq News - July 12, 2023
Researchers Michel Allard and Pascale Roy-Léveillée discuss their research in snowy Inukjuak. (Photo credit of Pascale Roy-Léveillée)

Thawing permafrost is taking a toll on Nunavik’s buildings and infrastructure and the way people use the land to hunt, fish and travel.

Laval University is continuing its work to study this phenomenon and examine ways the region can adapt to the effects of climate change, thanks to $600,000 from the Quebec government

The research chair on permafrost studies in Nunavik was created in May 2021. It’s led by Pascale Roy-Léveillée, an associate professor in the forestry, geography and geomatics department.

It started its work midway through the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant at first it was difficult for the team to do field research, Roy-Léveillée said in French, in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.

Now, students and researchers are working across Nunavik, studying the thawing ground.

“We put a lot of emphasis on questions linked to infrastructure,” she said. “Everything related to the built environment like the villages themselves, and the airports.”

In northern regions, the upper part of permafrost thaws and freezes seasonally. It’s considered the active layer. Below that is the continuous, or permanently frozen layer, which can vary from being a few metres deep to 1,000 metres or more below ground, depending on location.

During the last ice age, which ended more than 10,000 years ago, what is now Nunavik was under a large ice sheet. As it slowly receded, the shifting weight allowed the land to rise, creating the land we see today.

A lot of fine sediment that was previously underwater rose up, becoming Nunavik’s shoreline.

Because Nunavik communities are coastal, many villages were built on that fine sediment, which is especially prone to expand and contract as it freezes and thaws.

“Some communities are built on the sediments in their entirety, like Salluit,” Roy-Léveillée said.

A permafrost core sample extracted near Kangiqsualujjuaq is shown in this photo. (Photo credit of Sarah Gauthier and Université de Laval)

“That fine sediment is the worst for ice. It is the one that, throughout freezing, will accumulate the most ice growth, which expands it even more.”

Over the long term, this eventually damages the structural integrity of infrastructure in the region.

Typically engineers lay a base layer of gravel to protect buildings from sinking into melting permafrost. But gravel is becoming harder to come by, Roy-Léveillée said, which means a new, safer way of building needs to be used in Nunavik.

She and her department completed a research paper that looked at building structures on piers, or stakes, as is done in Nunavut.

“We focused on what is stopping us from building with stakes,” she said. “One of our main conclusions is that we must work with the communities to make it happen, especially when it comes to bringing drilling machines to Nunavik.”

Roy-Léveillée said people in the communities are invited to join the team to do field research. That would give locals the opportunity to collaborate, participate and learn about permafrost’s impact on the area.

The research body’s website includes maps of permafrost zones in every Nunavik community, as well as information on the state of thawing ice.

Located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, Nunatsiaq News is dedicated to covering affairs in Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec since 1973. It has been a partner to ArcticToday and its predecessors since 2016.

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