Northern permafrost soon to be museum piece in Ottawa

Permafrost is thawing in Canada's North, but two core samples from Yukon have been set aside for preservation and display, at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Core samples collected in Yukon will be on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Fabrice Calmels and Louis-Philippe Roy, researchers at Yukon College, devised a way to preserve and display permafrost core samples. Two samples have been sent to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, for its soon-to-open Arctic gallery. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa will soon have a cool new exhibit — some actual permafrost core samples, collected nearly 6,000 kilometres away in Yukon.

"This hasn't been done in Canada before — it's a first in that we can have cores presented in a museum, actually frozen cores," said Louis-Philippe Roy, a researcher at Yukon College who helped devise a way to display the samples while preserving them at the same time.

Storing permafrost samples in a regular chest freezer would cause the moisture to evaporate out over time, Roy said. The cores would also quickly degrade if they were regularly taken out of a freezer to be shown and handled.

Roy and another researcher, Fabrice Calmels, came up with a new way to display the cores — sealed in a glass jar filled with silicone oil, which preserves the permafrost and magnifies it for viewing. The samples can then be kept in a standard glass-front refrigerator.

The Yukon Research Centre, at Yukon College, has its own display of permafrost samples, collected in the territory. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"[It] allows us to have a nice clean display," Roy said. "It's going to allow other people that live in the southern provinces to see what is permafrost.

"We hear about permafrost thawing and climate change, but it's hard to really put an image on it."

'The Arctic is changing'

Two core samples, collected at a depth of 2.8 metres near Burwash Landing, Yukon, have already been sent to the museum, but won't be seen by the public until June. That's when the museum's new Arctic gallery will open.

"We're going to explore the geography of the Arctic, we're going to talk about climate, we're going to talk about sustainability ... and we're looking at the ecosystems," said Caroline Lanthier, with the museum.

Thawing permafrost threatens infrastructure in many parts of the North. Here, a driver heads over a bumpy stretch of Highway 3, between Yellowknife and Behchoko, N.W.T. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

The permafrost samples will be displayed alongside things such as fossilized trees from Nunavut's Axel Heiberg island, and Thule cultural artifacts.

Lanthier says the permafrost samples will be part of an exhibit focussed on Arctic climate.

"The Arctic is changing, and with climate change the permafrost is melting, and that's impacting infrastructure, that's impacting the flora and fauna living in the Arctic, and the people living in the Arctic," she said.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, now we have the actual thing ... there's nothing that beats having the actual sample in front of you."

With files from Mike Rudyk


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