Researchers set up permafrost thaw alert system on major highway connecting Yukon and Alaska

Yukon researchers are putting the finishing touches on an alert system that will notify the territorial government when there is a threat to drivers on the Alaska Highway from permafrost thaw or extreme weather events.

Collapsing ground could reach the Alaska Highway in 3 to 4 years, researchers say

Dr. Fabrice Calmels is leading an alert system project to notify the Yukon government of any threat to drivers on the Alaska Highway from permafrost thaw or extreme weather events. He says the Takhini Slump, pictured behind him, is roughly 40 metres from the Alaska Highway. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

A metal rod stands tall at kilometre 1,456 on the Alaska Highway as land near the road continues to slowly collapse from permafrost thaw.

It's the first device of a new alarm system that will tell Yukon's Department of Highways and Public Works when the road is under threat from further destruction caused by thawing. 

"It's very concerning to have this type of process, the ripping, so close to the road corridor," Dr. Fabrice Calmels, research chair of geoscience at YukonU Research Centre, told CBC News. 

The Takhini Slump, as it's known to Calmels and his research team, could reach the Alaska Highway in three to four years, the researchers say. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The team's data could eventually be used to help develop solutions to remediate the damage caused by thawing, he said.

Extreme temperatures

Permafrost is any ground that is completely frozen for at least two consecutive years. In the Yukon, that means there is a thick layer of ice underneath the ground's surface. 

At this spot 30 kilometres north of Whitehorse, known as the Takhini Slump to Calmels and his team, permafrost is thawing at faster rates than ever before. The ground appears to be collapsing in spots, with some trees slumped over or knocked down. 

One of the side-effects of permafrost thaw is slumped or knocked down trees, like these ones at the Takhini Slump. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Calmels and his researchers first came to this site two years ago to start their research. At that time, the slump was 95 metres from the road. Now, it's 40 metres away. 

Record-breaking temperatures in the Yukon this summer, caused by a heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, sped up the permafrost thaw. That means the slump got five metres closer to the road in just one month, Calmels said. 

At this rate, the slump will reach the highway in the next three to four years, he said.

Cyrielle Laurent, a geographic information systems technician at YukonU Research Centre and a member of the team, said Yukoners should know that permafrost thaw could have major impacts on their day-to-day lives. 

"This road is the only access that we have to Alaska," she said. "So if it goes down the drain, some people won't have access to their homes, to Whitehorse, to the hospital." 

How the alarm system works 

In order to set up the alarm system, the research team drilled holes into the ground and then put in sensors that measure humidity, temperature and other important factors every hour.

A computer analyzes the data. If it notices a threat to the highway, either imminent or one that could come due to an extreme weather event, it will alert the Yukon government. 

The alert system set up at kilometre 1,456 of the Alaska Highway. When the system is ready, it will send information about humidity, temperature and other factors to a computer system that will send out alerts if there's a threat to the road. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The alert system at the Takhini Slump is one of the first to be set up in Canada, with a few more sites in operation in northern Quebec. Eventually, the system will also be set up along the Dempster Highway, in both Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

"This is affecting many sites in Northern Canada," Calmels said. "When you are in very remote areas, you cannot monitor all these sites, so you need to have a system that can record specific data … that can be analyzed remotely." 

Calmels said they haven't found a solution yet to slow the movement of the Takhini Slump. 

Cyrielle Laurent, a GIS technician, works with Calmels on the site of the project. She's getting ready to launch a drone mission to record the size and scope of the slump. Those images let researchers know how far it's progressing. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The research team has a couple more touches to make on the system before it becomes fully operational, Calmels said, but that should be completed before the end of the year.