Permafrost is a mix of rock and soil that is held together by ice on ground that has been frozen at or below 0 degrees celsius for a minimum of two years in a row (D’Amore, 2019). According to Canadian Geographic, permafrost makes up between 40 and 50 percent of the land in Canada and roughly 25 percent of the area in the northern hemisphere (D’Amore, 2019). Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks have discovered that permafrost layers in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have started to thaw decades sooner than anticipated (D’Amore, 2019). Infrastructures on the top layer may shift and collapse as the centuries-old ice begins to thaw. The destruction of infrastructure caused by permafrost melt poses a serious risk to Indigenous populations in food security, safety, transportation, health, education, employment prospects, and culture.
Figure 1. Permafrost in Canada (Canadian Geographic, n.d.).
Permafrost thermal breakdown can be accelerated by wet and warm weather conditions. Although rising temperatures are significant, permafrost also reacts to ground moisture. The consultants came to the conclusion that while rising temperatures are the main cause of permafrost thaw, rising and extreme precipitation, and precipitation extremes could hasten the process of degradation, especially in areas where heat is transferred to ice-rich permafrost through rain, causing thermo-erosion and thawing (Phillips, n.d.). The quick and dramatic changes to the terrain that can result from the thawing of ice-rich permafrost include slumping, sinkholes, landslides, and the unexpected expansion or draining of water bodies (Phillips, n.d.).
Figure 2. Tarmac road crumbling due to permafrost thaw (Dore, 2021).
Impacts to Indigenous Communities
Indigenous culture could be impacted by the permafrost melt in numerous ways. The permafrost thaw is affecting and will continue to affect hunting and fishing by causing changes in wildlife populations, potential health effects on traditional foods, decreased travel safety, and higher costs related to hunting and fishing. Human Rights Watch stated in a study from 2020 that Indigenous communities in the Yukon, northern British Columbia, and northern Ontario have reported a significant decrease in the amount of food they can collect and an increase in danger due to permafrost conditions (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). The movement of Northern Indigenous communities on the land has been disrupted by permafrost melt. Large melting and slumping occurrences that modify trails will interfere with the traditional pathways and important sites (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). In Northern localities, the cost of building and maintaining roads is expensive, which leads to insufficient infrastructure for transport. Due to permafrost thaw, there have been bridge and infrastructure collapses that have cost millions to fix and keep operational (Firelight Research Inc., 2022).
Figure 3. Firelight Interview Participants’ Locations in Canada (Firelight Research Inc., 2022).
The Igloolik Community
In an interview with Firelight, a member of the Igloolik Community expresses their worries about problems with ground stability brought on by thawing permafrost. The participant points out that if the permafrost on the beach disappeared, a lot of mud would be produced, which would cause landslides in the nearby areas (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). Mudslides, which pose a threat to all occupants, would develop over time as a result of the mud and the shifting soil (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). While thawing permafrost has created a stability issue on the grounds of Igloolik, it has also questioned the community’s health and well-being of the environment through social changes (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). The participant in the Firelight interview shares that their ancestors and parents were nomadic, and one of their major concerns was never settling down for more than three years at a time. They believed that you were actually killing the land if you were occupying it for too long. Due to the thawing, their nomadic lifestyle has been disrupted. As said in the quote, “We actually killed the Island of Igloolik.” (Firelight Research Inc., 2022). However, they have used this opportunity to collect the melted permafrost as drinking water in regions (Firelight Research Inc., 2022).