Major Canadian activities over the past year centered on the Seventh International Conference on Permafrost through the national, program, field trip and local organizing committees. As indicated in the minutes of the Council meetings, the Canadian Organizing Committee’s final report on the Conference addresses the organization of future Conferences. At the opening ceremonies, Jean-Serge Vincent (Director, Terrain Sciences Division, Geological Survey of Canada) summarized the importance of permafrost research to Canada as well as permafrost regions of the world. Five immediate and essential research thrusts were addressed.
First, there is an urgent need to systematically acquire more baseline data on the precise distribution, thickness, ground ice content, ground thermal regime and engineering properties, and behavior of permafrost in many areas, particularly those where economic development is either ongoing or anticipated. For example, in Canada, outside of a few restricted areas, relatively little is known about permafrost in surficial deposits or in the bedrock of extensive areas of the Canadian Shield. Roads to the Arctic coast, port facilities, mines, and larger communities are being planned but baseline data are largely lacking.
Second, environmental concerns in northern Canada are increasing, particularly with regards to contaminant move-ment or containment in frozen ground. As regards oil and gas, the disposal of waste drilling fluids in below-ground sumps has been a concern for over two decades in Arctic Canada. Now, as other forms of mining activities increase in both North America and Siberia, these problems become increasingly complex. For example, the knowledge of permafrost aquifers is limited, yet it is essential if the tailings from new mines are to be handled efficiently and safely. Finally, the clean-up and control of various wastes that have been left in northern Canada over the past 50 years, following industrial, military or other activities, can only be effective if there is a sound science base.
A third research area involves acquiring better information on permafrost-related hazards as they affect northern communities and infrastructures of all types. Slope stability, thaw settlement and frost heave are fundamental areas. Likewise, there are special issues such as, for example, coastal erosion of permafrost shorelines. At Tuktoyaktuk, in the Pleistocene Mackenzie Delta region of Canada, the coast is receding in places at rates of more than 10 m/year. There is a need to thoroughly understand permafrost-related geomorphic processes and mechanisms. Also, there is a need to understand how the various geotechnical and environmental conditions control these mechanisms, and how surficial geology, vegetation, climate and permafrost interact.
A fourth research need involves the development and testing of new or modified geophysical techniques. These are needed to accurately and inexpensively delineate massive ice bodies and high ice contents in frozen sediments. In this way one may hope to minimize potential terrain disturbance or infrastructure damage in permafrost regions.
The fifth research need deals with the issue of providing a sound and realistic understanding of the impact of climate change on permafrost to both the physical environment and to engineering structures. Monitoring and modeling capabilities must be developed that can determine the signal of change in the cryosphere, evaluate impact scenarios, and formulate adaptation measures. The high latitudes of both North America and Eurasia will be especially affected. For example, in Canada, current predictions indicate a substantial warming in the Mackenzie River basin. It is thought that an average 2°C warming in summer temperatures will result in the progressive degradation of permafrost, and eventually lead to its virtual elimination over large areas. Over time, this will have a substantial impact upon communities, infrastructures, transportation corridors, and the environment in general. Associated with the issue of climate change is the acquisition of information on the distribution of widespread and abundant, but poorly known, gas hydrates in permafrost, and the various conditions that control their occurrence. The release into the atmosphere of large quantities of this greenhouse gas, that are presently trapped in permafrost, will significantly add to the global warming problem on the larger scale.
Based on presentation by Jean-Serge Vincent