From time to time, the Canadan Organizing Committee for the 7th International Conference on Permafrost June 1998) will use this column in Frozen Ground to present background information on the conference program and on the conference site, the City of Yellowknife, NWT. This is the first of these reports.
Yellowknife—the site of the 7th International Conference on Permafrost—is a bustling city of 17,000 situated on the shores of Great Slave Lake, in the southern part of the Northwest Territories of Canada. At latitude 62'28' north, it is about 960 km (600 miles) north of Edmonton (the site of the 3rd International Conference on Permafrost in 1978) and 440 km (275 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. The highway from Edmonton, opened through to Yellowknife in 1960, crosses the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence by means of a ferry in summer and an ice-bridge in winter. The road is open year round except for periods of a few weeks at the time of break-up and freeze-up of the river ice cover each spring and fall. The road distance from Edmonton is 1530 km (950 miles).
Yellowknife is located in an area that is typical of the Precambrian Canadian Shield. The local topography is generally flat, with many rock outcrops and small hills throughout the area. The region is dotted with innumerable lakes, and much of the land surface is covered with muskeg (peatland). Trees are small and predominantly spruce and pine, with birch and poplar stands found in valleys and on the occasional sand plains.
The overburden of glacial, fluvial or lacustrine deposits is shallow in most areas, but there are exceptions. In one place, drilling indicated a thickness of more than 130 m. In other areas around the townsite, drilling has revealed several tens of meters of gravels and sands overlying thinly stratified lake clays. In the townsite area the most significant glacial deposit is sand, representing outwash reworked by the waters of Great Slave Lake when it stood at a higher level. In places, former strandlines at elevations up to 80 m above the present level of the lake indicate former lake levels.
Permafrost in and around Yellowknife is widespread but not continuous, and extends to depths of more than 50 m in some areas. It does not occur in the exposed bedrock but is found where the rock is covered by overburden. Its greatest extent is in muskeg areas supporting spruce and sedge vegetation, where the active layer is about 1 m thick, and with mean annual ground temperature of -1° to -2°C. Little information is available on ground ice. Massive ice some tens of centimetres thick and thin ice lenses are found in many pockets of silt and clay. Quite extensive exposures of ground ice can be seen from time to time in the open pits at Giant Mine. Thin ice layers have also been observed at depth in bedrock fissures. In most areas of dry or welldrained sand or gravel, permafrost is usually not of major significance. Where ice-rich, fine-grained soils are encountered, however, major engineering problems arise.
The city of Yellowknife is named for the Yellowknife Dene (Indians). The name Yellowknife first appeared in Samuel Hearne's journal of his travels from Churchill to the Arctic coast for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1771. Hearne named the people inhabiting this area the Yellowknife Indians because he found them using knives and utensils of pure copper. Archeological evidence indicates the area has been occupied for over 2000 years. Peter Pond opened a fur trading post at Yellowknife Bay in 1786, which remained active until the 1820s.
Gold was first noted in the area in 1896, by miners on their way to the Klondike, but there was no staking rush because of the remoteness of the area. Hundreds of prospectors flooded into the area in the 1930s, however, following the discovery of pitchblende (uranium ore) at Great Bear Lake, and the gold at Yellowknife was rediscovered. By 1936, Yellowknife was a boom town, with two mine shafts being sunk. Commercial gold production began in September 1938, when a 72-pound (33-kg) gold brick was poured at the Con Mine. The gold mining industry continued to develop until, in 1942, there were six producing mines in the area, with an average annual production of about 100,000 fine ounces (3 tonnes). Gold mining is still a vital industry in the economy of Yellowknife. Also beginning in the 1930s was the era of the famed "bush pilots"
who opened up the Canadian north to prospectors, miners and developers. Yellowknife was an early center of operations
for bush planes; these were mainly float planes, at least in the early years. Air operations were centered on the Back Bay and Old Town areas, and a monument to the bush pilots was erected on The Rock in the Old Town in 1967. Along with the aircraft operations, Yellowknife developed into a center for support and expediting for prospectors and miners, a function which is still very important. The latest mineral target in the western part of the Canadian Shield is diamonds, with several good prospects under active exploration and development.
In 1967, Yellowknife was named the capital of the Northwest Territories. For many years the legislature met in the ballroom of the Explorer Hotel, which will be the main headquarters for the permafrost conference. Recently, a fine new Legislative Assembly Building has been erected across the road from the Explorer Hotel and near the NWT's principal museum, the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre.
Today Yellowknife is a thoroughly modern city, with all the facilities one would expect - museums, hotels, motels, restaurants, shops, banks, regular air service, etc. It is also a "small town" in the best sense of the idea, a town where people can and do know their neighbors. The permafrost conference is being planned to use space in the two main hotels in the town, plus other space as necessary. A local field excursion is being planned to provide all conference participants with an opportunity to see permafrost conditions in the city and its vicinity and how they affect the city's development. An accompanying persons program is being developed to make the best use of the facilities in Yellowknife and the hiking, fishing, picnicking and other opportunities in the surrounding wilderness area.
Branko Ladanyi, Professor of Civil Engineering at école Polytechique de Montreal, has received the 1995 Northern Science Award. The award is presented annually by the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to an individual who has made significant contributions to knowledge and understanding of the Canadian North.
The Cold Regions Division, Canadian Geotechnical Society, has a new executive, as of January 1996. The members are Elisabeth Hivon, EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd., Edmonton (chair); Kevin Biggar, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Alberta, Edmonton; Scott Dallimore, Terrain Sciences Division, Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa; and Alan Hanna, AGRA Earth and Environmental Ltd., Calgary, Alberta.
Submitted by J. Alan Heginbottom (email@example.com)