Permafrost researcher from Yukon College joins international project on Herschel Island


Credit: Louis-Philippe Roy

Louis-Philippe Roy stands at the edge of the Arctic Ocean on the northernmost edge of Yukon, Canada. He stares out across an endless landscape of ice and snow, broken only by a few muskoxen here and there. Right now, this place feels absolutely permanent, frozen in place. Yet, Roy knows the ground below him is unstable–thawing at an alarming rate. Where he stands, Herschel Island, is falling into the sea and taking parts of Canada’s history with it.

Originally a base for Inuvialuit people to hunt and fish, in the 1890s and 1900s Herschel Island, Qikiqtaruk in Inuvialuktun, became a bustling community of around 1,500. A hub in the global whaling industry until whaling suddenly ceased to be profitable in 1908. Today, it has a population of zero.

Wooden houses, a community hall, and whaling company buildings from that brief era still stand today. Those in the best condition have been renovated to house tourists and researchers who visit throughout the year.

This expedition has been organized by Nunataryuk, a five-year project to determine the impacts of thawing coastal and subsea permafrost on the global climate and develop targeted and co-designed adaptation and mitigation strategies for the Arctic coastal population.

Roy is here to assist an international research team as they spend several weeks gathering soil, flora, fauna and permafrost core samples in this vulnerable coastal ecosystem. Everything they will need to do this must be shipped in and out. More than half a tonne in equipment and field gear was shipped a month prior to the team’s arrival and travelled all the way from Potsdam, Germany over the Atlantic Ocean up the Dempster Highway, Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories (NWT).

George Tanski from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Andreas Richter from the University of Vienna, Juliane Wolter, Hugues Lantuit and Jan Kahl from the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and Jöelle Voglimacci-Stéphanopoli and Vincent Sasseville from the Université de Sherbrooke each bring a diverse set of research agendas and field methods to the table to accomplish their task.

As a permafrost researcher with Northern Climate ExChange at Yukon College, Roy’s experience organizing large and complex field research groups, planning for cold climate work, permafrost drilling and core sampling proves invaluable for the Nunataryuk team.

“Doing research in such remote places like Qikiqtaruk and the rest of the north requires massive logistical planning. I have seen it all and am rarely surprised by setbacks anymore. I have had to fix broken down equipment in -30C, been delayed weeks due weather and flying conditions, and had near misses with wildlife encounters. Being a northern researcher, means you must be prepared for anything. Conditions and plans change all the time, one must be adaptable and prepared, this trip was no exception” said Roy.

The thirty-year-old has conducted field work in Alaska, Northwest Territories and Yukon, but this was his first trip to Qikiqtaruk.

“We can learn a lot about past climate conditions studying our frozen ground, and I was looking forward to studying Herschel Island. Permafrost ground temperature it is a good indicator of how climate is changing in different areas. I’ve worked in Yukon since 2012 and seen a lot of changes to the landscape and environment. There are sites we have been visiting for five to six years now and we can see, even in this short period, a lot of changes related to permafrost degradation,” said Roy.

Despite temperatures hovering around -10C (14F) through the day, of -20 (-4F) with the windchill, the increased Arctic spring daylight enables the team to work well into the evening. When not busy drilling boreholes and doing preliminary analysis of samples, they explore the landscape and hang out with park rangers in the shared, no-frills shack.

“It was fantastic to benefit from the experience of Yukon College. We achieved much more than we would have without the presence of Louis-Philippe. We can now start to understand how permafrost changes from the south to the northern tip of the Yukon. This is unique and very promising for the future,” said Dr. Hugues Lantuit, Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

The team also benefits from the experience of wildlife monitor, Peter Archie from Aklavik, NWT. Archie brings a wealth of traditional knowledge, making the job of a researcher a lot easier, providing support leading up to and during a trip. He knows the area and resident wildlife well and stands watch for potential encounters–very beneficial when the group was charged by a lone wolverine.

“Qikiqtaruk is a truly unique place. It is far away from civilization, and at the edge of the world in some ways but concentrates a wealth of Inuvialuit and recent cultural history. It is a privilege to stay there and contemplate these two dimensions as we work on permafrost,” said Dr. George Tanski, Faculty of Science, Earth and Climate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Permafrost thaw is expected to impact human health through the release of contaminants and infections, through impacts on food and water security of Arctic coastal settlements inducing health and socio- economic repercussions. The cores and samples collected on Hershel will now undergo thorough analysis. The team hopes to quantify thawing permafrost and its impact on storage and vulnerability of organic matter and contaminants on land along with determining the vulnerability of existing infrastructure.

As it becomes Yukon University in May 2020, Canada’s first university north of 60, Yukon College looks forward to continuing to work, collaborate and partner with other international organizations and institutions to understand the impacts of climate change on the global environment, and how we can adapt.



About Northern Climate Exchange at Yukon College:

Established in 2000, Yukon College’s Northern Climate ExChange partners with communities, industry, First Nations, academics and government leaders to explore and respond to climate change impacts on northern communities and their infrastructure. Yukon College conducts leading-edge permafrost research focused on supporting infrastructure maintenance and construction for Arctic development and the well-being of communities who live on the land, while making high-level scientific contributions to permafrost science and engineering.

Find out more about Yukon College’s permafrost research:

About Nunataryuk:

Nunataryuk is a project made up of 26 international partners, predominately post-secondary institutions, including Université Laval in Canada and coordinated by Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam Germany. Nunataryuk is committed to determining the impacts of thawing coastal and subsea permafrost on the global climate and will be developing targeted and co-designed adaptation and mitigation strategies for the Arctic coastal population.

Find out more about Nunataryuk

Find out more about Herschel Island

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