The Current

As permafrost thaws in Canada's Arctic, locals and researchers raise 'alarm bells'

As the planet warms, its normally-frozen layer of permafrost is melting. We talk to northerners about how it's impacting their communities, and hear from a researcher studying the situation.

Abrupt permafrost thaw can also dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions, study finds

In this undated photo, abrupt permafrost melting has caused a large landslide into a side channel of the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. Permafrost in some areas of the Canadian Arctic is melting so fast that it's gulping up the equipment left there to study it. (Carolyn Gibson/Canadian Press)
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Thawing permafrost — an occurrence raising "alarm bells" in Canada's Arctic — is threatening to sweep away the local cemetery in an N.W.T. community, located on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

"If the water keeps coming and coming, we're going to be exposing the graves," Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Merven Gruben told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway.

"A thing that's crossed our mind, of course, is relocation of the cemetery, but you know, who wants to do that? The cemetery's been there forever and there's a lot of unmarked graves."

A study published last week in the journal Nature shows permafrost is thawing much faster than believed in some areas of Canada's Arctic. Researchers have found several metres of soil can destabilize in days versus a few centimetres thawing a year.

"Everything we hear about in the public and the media about trying to keep climate change under wraps — none of this includes abrupt permafrost thaw," said Merritt Turetsky, the report's lead researcher, adding that researchers are trying to raise "alarm bells" within the broader scientific community about it.

"This is an issue that we're only going to be hearing more about across Canada," she said. 

It's happening so fast that the collapsing land is swallowing up scientific equipment. In other cases, it's causing landslides and flooding forests.

Melting permafrost and ice is visible along the coast of the Mackenzie Delta. (Roger MacLeod/Natural Resources Canada)

In Iqaluit, the foundation of the Arctic Winter Games arena required over $2 million in repairs in the early 2000s because permafrost made it unstable. In another Nunavut community, Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said floods took out the local bridge.

"People live in the Arctic. Our infrastructure is there. And we need to find the solutions, and the adaptations, and access those climate change dollars so that we stabilize our communities, because they're also continuing to grow," Redfern said.

"We need to look at, you know, moving beyond just using the Arctic as a photo backdrop."

More greenhouses gases than expected

But it's not just the collapsing ground that scientists are worried about.

The study warns the rapid thawing of ice-rich permafrost could dramatically increase the amount of greenhouse gases released from ancient plants and animals frozen within the tundra — leading to further warming of the planet.

A home destroyed by beach erosion lies on its side on Sept. 27, 2006, in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, where rising temperatures are causing a reduction in sea ice and thawing of permafrost along the coast. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the findings, the melting permafrost could release 50 per cent more greenhouse gases than previously expected. 

"Some of the earliest reports were that the carbon released could be enough to cause catastrophic climate change," Turetsky said.

Despite the rapid thaw, it'll be decades before the extra carbon release starts to influence global climate, she added.

Immediate solutions needed

Redfern acknowledged the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But she said northern communities are feeling the impact of thawing permafrost right now, and she wants to see the federal government fund solutions.

Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said northern communities need immediate solutions to address thawing permafrost. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

In a statement to The Current, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said it is investing $2 billion in a fund for infrastructure projects in rural and northern communities.

"An additional $400 million will help address energy security in remote and northern communities, including Indigenous communities," it said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. With files from The Canadian Press. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Julie Crysler and Cinar Kiper.

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