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The Yukon's ice man confronts a slow melt

Calmels is a disaster man - a permafrost pundit for hire, making a living off melting ice.

by Genesee Keevil

Fabrice Calmels is a disaster man - a permafrost pundit for hire, making a living off melting ice.

For the last few years, the Northern Climate ExChange permafrost pro has been Highways and Public Works’ sinkholes specialist, driving up and down that tooth-rattling stretch of road between Destruction Bay and the Alaska border ferreting out frost heaves and hunting big bumps.

Calmels and his permafrost posse spend all summer out there drilling deep down into the dirt, looking for ice.

In his basement office at the Yukon Research Centre, Calmels stretches out a long skinny map, part geological features, part Google Earth, covering that 200-kilometre swath of highway. He has 15 permafrost testing sites along this route, and hopes to have at least 20 by summer’s end, based on geological features and field observations which tell him where to dig for the best specimens and what kind of permafrost to expect.

Not all permafrost is equal, he said. Permafrost comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s layers of frozen rock and gravel. If that thaws, nothing happens. The rocks are still rocks.

Other times, the ice infiltrates sand and clay, creating huge heaves. When this thaws, the ground drops, and so does the highway.

Calmels proudly pulls up a picture of one of his scientists, standing up to his waste in a yawning crevasse on the shoulder of the road. “This wasn’t there when we drove up a few days earlier,” he said. Highways and Public Works had the crevasse filled in a few days. But maintaining a road built on permafrost remains a Sisyphean but necessary task.

Part of the problem is pace of life.

The old Alaska Highway used to meander around marshes and hug higher ground. Then cars got faster, life sped up and the highway was straightened, often at the expense of solid ground. Engineers were hired to look at the best routes, with often-limited means. “They often only went down about 10 metres,” said Calmels.

Today, his crew has probed down 40 metres using geophysics, and still found ice. In one spot, they found a swath of ice-rich permafrost the thickness of a five-story building. If these five stories eventually thaw, the highway could take a pretty massive hit.

In many cases, roads accelerate thawing permafrost. The banks of the highway stop water flow, creating stagnant pools that warm up in summer, transferring more heat into the ground. In winter, the same berms gather drifting snow, creating an insulating blanket that keeps the ground around the road from cooling down.

Highways and Public Works is trying to be proactive and mitigate some of these problems, improving the drainage and looking for a better way to manage snow. “But even if everything is perfect, the climate is still warming,” said Calmels.

He pulls up another picture on his computer, this one of a chunk of permafrost-rich land in Northern Quebec. It’s a black and white photo from 1957. Perfectly circular frost heaves are visible surrounded by dark pine and rocks. Calmels jumps to another picture, this one in colour. It’s the same shot, taken 46 years later. Some frost heaves are still visible, but where there was forest, there is now water - a lot of water.

“This is about a lot more than roads breaking and houses tilting,” he said. “Melting permafrost not only affects our infrastructure, it affects our way of life.”

Calmels has spent time researching the effects of melting permafrost on food security. In the North, people used to live off the land, relying on frozen ground to support berries, lichen and a host of other plants, which in turn fed caribou, birds and a variety of furry creatures. Now, huge regions have been degraded to bog and marsh, said Calmels. The caribou no longer come through these areas and not even fish have replaced the furry animals. “It’s changed access to this territory,” he said.

As they graph and chart the gradual disappearance of the ice, Calmels’ permafrost posse sometimes gets discouraged.

“We see all this, but there’s not a lot we can do,” said Northern Climate ExChange permafrost researcher Louis-Philippe Roy, who works with Calmels. “The problem is thawing permafrost is affecting things at a slow pace.” It can take a lifetime to see these big changes, he said. “So it’s hard for people to grasp.”

Calmels blames the human brain. “Our brains our badly adapted to long-term threats,” he said. “They’re better adapted to short-term threats, like you see an avalanche and you run.”

The gradual effects of climate change don’t trigger the same kind of response, though Calmels hopes better research and more detailed data will lead to better decision-making.

This will be Calmels and Roy’s last summer testing permafrost along the highway. But they will continue to study permafrost around the territory as hired guns, tackling any problems thrown their way. This includes an ongoing Yukon Research Centre project mapping melting permafrost hazards in Yukon communities.

“We’re building a permafrost database,” said Roy. “So we can see what’s happening on a larger scale.”

The goal is to anticipate the problems and make changes, said Calmels. “We can’t stop humanity from behaving how they behave,” he said. “But education can help.”