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Scientists, First Nations in Dawson City dig deep into our future under climate change

At a climate change conference in Dawson City, scientists and First Nations are meeting face-to-face to understand the daily impact of climate change, and how thawing permafrost will influence the future of mining, land-use and climate adaptation.

Organizer Chris Burn says Indigenous knowledge is crucial to adaptation and planning

Chris Burn, a permafrost and ground ice expert from Carleton University, in Dawson City, Yukon. A conference underway there has scientists and First Nations meeting face-to-face to understand the daily impact of climate change and thawing permafrost. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

First Nations, scientists and climate change experts are sharing how the Yukon's landscape — shaped by permafrost — is thawing and what that means for adaptation, land use, industry and wildlife.

The issue is the main theme of the North Yukon Permafrost Conference, a collaboration between the Tr'ondëk Hwëchin and Vuntut Gwitchin governments, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun and the Canadian Permafrost Association. The conference runs all week.

The permafrost shift is especially noticeable in Dawson City, said Jackie Olson, a Tr'ondëk Hwëchin citizen who has lived in the community her whole life. 

"Buildings are starting to twist. You can see it in the old buildings that have never been touched … how they're starting to lean in. So the evidence of permafrost is there."

Olson said sharing more information about climate change will push decision-makers into action.

"As an individual, it may seem like an impossible task, but if we all start to think about it … we can bring that information with us and speak more … intellectually on it, so that people who can make the change will hear it."

Olson said weather is getting more unpredictable, fires are burning more intensely, glaciers are changing and so are the animals. 

"I think it's very important the message gets across that First Nation [and Elders'] voices matter and they have a huge amount to contribute and they need to be heard," she said.

"The youth are on it. I just have to say, don't give up. Don't lose faith, because our ancestors stand behind us and they will continue to guide us everywhere we go."

A shot of the exterior of the rec centre in Dawson City.
Dawson City's hockey rink, curling rink, curling lounge and second floor of the administration building were closed in 2017 due to shifting permafrost. (Google Maps)

Chris Burn, a permafrost and ground ice expert from Carleton University, organized this conference and has spent four decades studying permafrost in the Yukon. 

Burn said while large conferences that require flying and driving cause their own emissions, it allows for scientists and First Nations to build relationships and deepen their understanding of the first-hand impacts of thawing permafrost on communities.

"This is not something that is commonly appreciated in the training of many Western scientists," said Burn. Roughly 20 years ago, there was little permafrost disturbance on the Dempster Highway.

In the Northern end of the traditional territory of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, there are "numerous" permafrost disturbances that can be seen for "miles and miles."

"Things are happening that haven't happened for 14,000 years," said Burn, and many of those changes pose risks to fish and wildlife. 

A section of the Dempster Highway. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

'New world' of permafrost thaw

The Vuntut Gwitchin in Old Crow have a front row seat to climate change, where permafrost thaw is causing land to slump into the river.

Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said eventually the permafrost thaw will affect the fish and wildlife. He told CBC the discussions at this conference are about our future generations. 

"We really need to come together because the decisions we make now are exponential and will resonate, and those decisions are based on the quality of the conversations today."

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm poses for a photo in front of the Porcupine River in Old Crow on July 22. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The conference, held all week, includes field trips to see the effects of thawing permafrost first hand. 

The conference will discuss geohazards of a changing climate, like landslides or roads and homes sinking, and "the big geohazard" of carbon releasing from the thawing permafrost, said Burn. 

The delegates will also discuss adapting to climate change, including how mining could change based on altered groundwater chemistries and water coming into contact with rocks that haven't been touched for thousands of years, he said. 

Bill Slater, an environmental consultant, said a future with thawing permafrost will affect how we plan mining projects and the closure and reclamation of existing mines. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

"This is a new world that the permafrost environment is telling us we're into.… The people who live here are telling us what these things mean for them and that informs the scientists so that they understand that their work … is actually of direct impact on people."

Bill Slater sat on a panel about adaptations, like the possibility of planning to close mining projects in the face of permafrost thaw.

Slater has worked in water management in the Yukon for 30 years and as a consultant to Indigenous governments on the impacts of mining and mine cleanup projects. 

The thaw can affect land stability.

This aerial image shows the site of a 2021 permafrost slump that's caused a landslide into the Yukon River near Whitehorse. The landslide crept within 55 metres of the Alaska Highway, visible at the bottom of the image. (Yukon University)

He said climate change conversations are often centred around vehicle emissions or burning of fuel, but rarely on the type of emissions that could be created by digging up a wetland and releasing carbon that has been stored for thousands of years. 

"We need to be more comprehensive … in our consideration of the implications of the projects that we do and how they might affect permafrost," and traditional uses of land, he said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avery Zingel

Reporter

Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at avery.zingel@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.

Written by Avery Zingel based on interviews by Chris MacIntyre

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