tech and dirt

The high point of my life as a techno-nerd this week was my day junket to Haines Junction, to attend a workshop of highways, permafrost and adaptation technologies.

The high point of my life as a techno-nerd this week was my day junket to Haines Junction, to attend a workshop of highways, permafrost and adaptation technologies.

I was there as part of my professional duties with the Yukon Research Centre of Excellence at Yukon College, but also as an amateur highway construction enthusiast (if there can be such a thing).

There were some 30 people clustered in the warm, stuffy upstairs room of the St. Elias Convention Centre, talking about climate warming and the challenges of melting ground ice.

Stuffy as the room may have been, I was in something of an occupational comfort zone all day, since I knew many of the people in the room, and had a practical, if limited, understanding of what they were talking about.

My first real professional “career” (in so far as I have ever had one) was as a seasonal survey technician, working primarily on highway construction projects in the Yukon, most of it for YTG’s Department of Highways and Public Works.

The reconstruction of the Alaska Highway, and the upgrading of the Yukon’s regional road net, paid for my university education, and for my subsequent travel and other adventures, for a little more than 15 years.

Inevitably, my experience in doing surveys to dig dirt up and lay dirt down lead to frequent encounters with the misery and challenge of permafrost.

I spent more than one miserable work shift slogging around in a slimy mudflow caused by uncovering an unexpected patch of ground ice.

Survey techniques and technologies were much more primitive and labour intensive in those days, and the understanding of the behaviour of permafrost, and techniques for dealing with it, much more limited.

What mildly surprised me at the workshop this week was how advances in survey technologies have not been matched by advances in understanding and management of the problem of permafrost.

The kinds of survey tools I learned to use back in the 70s and 80s – theodolites, plumb bobs, steel chains, survey rods and tapes – have largely been superseded, now, by electronic devices.

The kinds of skills I spent a decade and a half acquiring and honing in the field are now pretty much all obsolete.

Disturbingly, the science and technology of dealing with permafrost has not advanced at anything like the same rate.

As the highly capable road-engineering types at the workshop pointed out, highways in the Yukon are still built in accordance with standards and specifications developed in Southern regions, with little or no regard to conditions peculiar to the Northern environment.

In addition, though there is apparently some good quality work being done in a few Canadian universities, and in Alaska, our scientific understanding of the nature and behaviour of permafrost is still in quite early stages.

This is to a certain extent inevitable, since permafrost has been, at least until recently, a not particularly sexy field for scientific endeavour; it is a problem of parochial interest, to sparsely-populated Northern regions.

With the coming of climate change, however, permafrost science is becoming a subject of growing interest to the national and international scientific community; and, as the project demonstrations by various university students at the workshop made clear, is attracting the attention of some pretty formidable, young minds.

The day following the Haines Junction workshop was to be taken up with a trip to Beaver Creek, where an unglamorous but highly interesting permafrost research site has been operating for the past several years.

It was a big disappointment to me that my professional obligations would not let me stay for that day, because my interest was considerably piqued.

It was piqued because, though the work going on there may be being carried out by academics, the lessons being learned there, and the techniques being developed, are likely to be of much more than academic importance, as the Yukon continues to warm up.

That warming will mean increasing problems maintaining already-active areas of permafrost degradation on our highways, and new problems with areas that will begin to actively deplete as the warming trend brings them to life.

As one highway engineer pointed out at the workshop, using very rough, average numbers from his long experience, it costs the Yukon government roughly $3,000 a year to maintain one kilometre of non-permafrost road, not including snow clearing costs in winter.

A kilometer of permafrost-depleting roadway can cost anywhere up to 10 times that much to maintain each year, as we keep filling in the sinkage.

Given that, they are also faced with an aging and hard-to-replace road maintenance workforce, our highways department is faced with a pending triple-whammy transportation problem: Depleted human resources to do maintenance; increased maintenance costs in existing problem areas, and whole new problems areas that have been triggered by climate warming.

Not an enviable situation, all in all, though there are some hopeful elements in the problem mix.

For one thing, problems usually only get addressed when they start to look serious, and the permafrost problem is now moving into that category.

For another thing, the North has now become a “where the action is” place for budding young scientists, since we are on the leading edge of experiencing and adapting to problems of climate change; we are appearing on the mental radar of the bright scientific minds of tomorrow.

And, judging from the student work I saw on display at the workshop, those are pretty impressive young minds.

We may get ourselves out of this muck, yet, though the muck is likely to get worse, first.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.