Navigating a changing landscape
“Elders in the community are concerned about what they see happening in the environment,” says Margaret Ireland, Resource Management Coordinator at Jean Marie River First Nation. “They see trees falling over; they feel the Mackenzie River warming, and they notice the river fish have softer flesh.”
As well, the distinct frost heaves called palsas — mounds of permafrost soil that once towered up to six metres — have collapsed. Some have even disappeared.
The palsas acted as landmarks for wayfinding, so changes like this have impacted the way people navigate while hunting, trapping, and harvesting on their traditional lands.
First-hand knowledge of changes in the landscape, borne from a connection to the area that reaches back many generations, is key to an ongoing Yukon College research project that identifies areas of permafrost vulnerability in northern communities.
“Information from community members and elders helps us to understand how the land is changing over time and what that means to the people,” says Cyrielle Laurent, a GIS Specialist with the Northern Climate ExChange at Yukon College.
“We work side-by-side with the community and the whole relationship is based on an exchange. They share their knowledge and we share our knowledge.”
This mapping project integrates community knowledge with scientific research, such as soil and water sampling, to create maps that characterize a region’s permafrost and rank its likeliness to thaw — from no vulnerability to high vulnerability.
The study covers about 940 square kilometres in Jean Marie River. Permafrost covers about 50 percent of that area. In some parts, that permafrost is substantially degraded, and that means the land can be more unpredictable.
So far, nine communities have been mapped: Dawson City, Ross River, Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay, Old Crow, Faro, Pelly Crossing and Mayo in Yukon, and Jean Marie River and Dettah in the NWT. Those maps have been collected into an atlas, which can be found online through Yukon College’s Yukon Research Centre.
These maps can be used as a starting point to guide future development in each area. A community could use the map — in concert with other tools such as geophysical surveys — in their planning process to determine the best spots to build infrastructure like housing and roads, and which foundations for building would be best suited to the permafrost conditions underground.
“It doesn’t mean that you cannot build in areas of higher vulnerability, but it would likely be more difficult and more expensive,” says Laurent.
Thawing permafrost can lead to unpredictable movement in the land, and that can lead to damage to infrastructure. It can also affect areas that are important for traditional uses, such as hunting and trapping, and that can impact a community’s way of life and threaten food security.
“The overall drive for the project came from our elders; they tasked me to find out as much as I could about what’s happening on our land,” says Ireland. “It’s been an exciting study because we are all growing and learning together.”