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Research on permafrost: story of a mission in the Umiujaq valley, Arctic

  • John Dansdill Corporate & Institutional Banking
  • Chicago, United States
  • 26.10.2017

From September 21 to 27, 2017, I was invited by the BNP Paribas Foundation in northern Canada, to meet TAKUVIK researchers who are studying, thanks to their financial support, the thawing of the permafrost. A phenomenon that could accelerate global warming by releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. An unforgettable experience in the heart of distant lands!

About four hours flight time north of Montreal, Canada on the eastern edge of the Hudson Bay, outside the small Inuit community of Umiujaq, Quebec, a mission to study the thawing of permafrost in this region and its impact on climate disruptions is well established.  The scientific team from the Takuvik Laboratory, a joint project by Laval University in Quebec and French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), with support from the BNP Paribas Foundation, is running a project - Acceleration of Permafrost Thaw (APT) by Snow-Vegetation Interactions.  

The phenomenon of permafrost thaw is little understood at this time and is not properly accounted for in climate models used to assess climate change.  We had an enlightening visit with the scientists and a production team from RFI and the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris documenting the project in the valley near Quebec’s largest national park, Tursujuq.

News from the mission

Upon our arrival in Umiujaq, we met with Florent Domine from Takuvik laboratory and Denis Sarrazin from the Centre for Northern Studies who guided us out of town into the picturesque valley, which serves as the base for the APT project.  We entered the gorgeous valley, defined by large cuestas (ridges of basalt rock strata) on either side that feeds into the tip of Lake Tasiujaq. Flora ranging from boreal coniferous forest to arctic shrub tundra hosts a colorful mixture of wild berries, mushrooms, lichens, and mosses.  We were treated to a glimpse of the fauna native to the region, which includes these boeufs musqués (arctic bison).

Other native species include birds such as falcons, eagles, hawks, geese and ducks. Seals, beluga whale, salmon, and arctic char populate the water, while caribou, moose, and bear roam the land. After our brief encounter with these creatures, we drove farther into the valley where the researchers take measurements with an elaborate set of instruments financed by the BNP Paribas Foundation.

The research team has been collecting data to better understand the weather patterns and its impact on the permafrost layers about two to three meters beneath the ground in the Umiujaq valley.  Measurements taken throughout the year, include temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, micro turbulence, levels of water and CO2 in the atmosphere, and snowfall.  

Within the valley, melted permafrost has created thermokarst ponds that act as hotspots for climate change through the release of methane and CO2 that would otherwise be trapped in frozen permafrost.  This phenomenon is important for the Inuit community in Umiujaq to determine a prudent approach to construction projects and housing developments amidst these conditions. The road between the airport and town has been reinforced following a partial collapse from melting permafrost layers.





On the second day of our visit, some of the research team took a boat north toward the Nastapoka Falls and lowered probes in Hudson Bay to analyze the temperature of the Bay floor and determine if it is frozen. The rest of the team returned to the valley to perform maintenance on some of the analytical instruments including a sensor replacement to a device that measures snowfall. The scientists place nail beds around the lower lying instruments so that bears don’t destroy the equipment.

That afternoon, the entire team came together to drill through three meters of soil and sand beneath the ground to obtain permafrost core samples, which consist of a mixture of minerals, sediment, dirt, and ice.  It was nice to see the large amount of ice in the permafrost cores at this site. The earth around the sinkhole became squishy and uneven and the scientific team took the permafrost cores and samples of the lichen surface around the sinkhole for further analysis of the chemical properties.

The following day, the team visited the local school in Umiujaq to show the students and teachers the permafrost cores and explain the purpose of the scientific mission

To end our visit, we boarded a helicopter to an interesting site beyond the cuestas with a large concentration of thermokarst ponds, further demonstrating the impact of thawing permafrost in the region and how it is drastically changing the landscape

That evening, the aurora borealis provided a light show of natural green across the sky above Umiujaq. 

In the Permafrost Valley 

While the rhythm of the APT mission is driven by the various operations carried out by the scientific teams, the two journalists, Yseult Berger and Simon Roze, with assistance from sound experts Xavier Gibert and Yann Bourdelas are documenting day-to-day life in Umiujaq and the work of the researchers in the beautiful valley surrounding the community.

The photographs and interviews included in the logbook of the journalists take us behind the scenes of the mission: the deployment of the instruments, the measurements and analyses of the samples in the field and laboratory, and the ultimate impact on the region and beyond.

#MissionUmiujaq: Why does it make sense for us to support research on permafrost? Meet Florent Dominé from Takuvik

Photos ©John Dansdill / Sylvain Taboni

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