Thawing permafrost threatens food security in Jean Marie River, N.W.T.

Climate change is causing permafrost to thaw in and around Jean Marie River First Nation in the N.W.T. That's gradually turning lichen-rich forested and shrubbed areas — where caribou and moose come to feed — into wetlands, even lakes and ponds.

'If the lichen disappear, the caribou won't come anymore,' says scientist

Jonas Sanguez of Jean Marie River, N.W.T., has to tread carefully when he goes hunting these days. Permafrost heaves were once stable ground, reliable pathways for both hunters and animals, but not anymore.

"Pretty much have to be careful of where you walk, and most of the times where there's permafrost, the ground is very soft," says Sanguez.

He's worried by the new pools of water at the base of the permafrost mounds — a bizarre sight, considering it's a drought year.

In some places, thawing permafrost is causing trees to tip over. (submitted by Cyrielle Laurent)
"If a moose were to go through here, they would probably get stuck," Sanguez says. "Once it goes through something like this, [it'll] probably never get out and just die there."

About 300 kilometres west of Yellowknife, the community of about 70 lies roughly on the edge of the permafrost zone, where continuous permafrost gives way to sporadic patches. Those who live there rely on caribou, moose, fowl and berries for a good portion of their diet.

But scientists and hunters say that diet is threatened by thawing permafrost, which is gradually turning lichen-rich forested and shrubbed areas — where caribou come to feed — into wetlands, even lakes and ponds.

The changes are noticeable. Enough so that, three years ago, the community initiated a study into how thawing permafrost could affect their food security and future health, part of a larger look at how to prepare for climate change.

Gladys Norwegian is chief of Jean Marie River First Nation. '[We want to] look ahead to make sure that plans are in place for a younger generation.' (Kate Kyle/CBC)
"[We want to] look ahead to make sure that plans are in place for a younger generation or for people who are going to continue to live in this community," says Chief Gladys Norwegian.

Cyrielle Laurent, a geographer based in Whitehorse, was one of the researchers approached by the community. She helped create a map, using traditional and scientific knowledge, that shows where the most significant changes would occur and which animals are likely to be affected by the changing landscape.

"From what we saw, the degradation could be completed in a few decades," Laurent says. 

Falling trees, new plants

The study area, of almost 1,000 square kilometres, is made up of low rolling marshland, dense spruce, pine and poplar forests, sporadically underlain with permafrost roughly 10 metres thick.

About the half the study area includes land vulnerable to permafrost degradation.

The most advanced area is in the Tthoogée Tué area, the western section of the study area, where the thaw is causing trees to tip over.

Sanguez is worried by the new pools of water at the base of the permafrost mounds — a bizarre sight, considering it's a drought year. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"If you have trees in this environment and it's being flooded by the water, then the trees don't like it. They start dying. It forms more of a wetland area," says Laurent.

Areas like Ekali Lake, in the southeast, are relatively stable, and still frequented by caribou, but will eventually see a similar fate.

Laurent isn't surprised the permafrost is thawing but was surprised to see how fast new vegetation is appearing.

"There were a few sites we visited two years ago and we went again this year and what we noticed on top of the moss there was tall sages, tall grass starting to grow."

'My freezer is my store'

While there are many studies on how permafrost thaw affects buildings, the study is unique in drawing a direct link from thawing permafrost to First Nations' food security.

"We can't stop permafrost from degrading but can probably find some solutions and find better ways to adapt." says Laurent.

'My traditional freezer is my store,' says Lucy Simon, an elder with diabetes who relies on country food. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Fabrice Calmels is a permafrost and geomorphology scientist with the Yukon Research Centre, and Laurent's research partner and husband. In a laboratory in Whitehorse, he examines aerial photos of the study area. 

Most of the landscape is covered in lichen, a white blanket covering the sporadic permafrost mounds. But there are some dark black patches indicating water — areas where the permafrost is already depleting.

"The mounds will collapse," Calmels says. "The lichen will disappear. Now the caribou come to this area to feed on the lichen, so if the lichen disappear, the caribou won't come anymore."

That could change a way of life.

Lucy Simon is a case in point. The elder's freezer is filled to the brim with mother nature's bounty — beaver, caribou ribs, fish heads and moose meat.

"My traditional freezer is my store," says Simon. "I would be very devastated if I didn't have that."

As a diabetic, country food is a staple she can't imagine living without.

"I am looking at my kids future, my grandchildren and great grandchildren. When they come home that's all they eat."


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