Chris Burn LUT3512As Canada takes new steps to address global warming, climate change is once again a frequent subject of conversation across the country. Not a day goes by, it seems, without another news story about its impacts. Much attention focuses on the potential release of organic carbon as frozen ground melts. In Canada, where a third of the country is underlain by permafrost, the stability of soils is an urgent concern.

Dr. Christopher Burn, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, has a longstanding and deep interest in this subject. His research program strives to provide explanations for the behaviour of permafrost terrain that are founded in field verification of physically based models. He is working to identify the elements of these ancient Ice Age landscapes that are most vulnerable to melting, and his goal is to identify engineering design and management practices that can keep northern infrastructure secure as the ground literally subsides beneath it.

Chris Burn LUT3520Burn presented his research on February 4th to new Parliamentarians and industry leaders at the popular Bacon and Eggheads Breakfast on Parliament Hill. This was the first breakfast held under the auspices of the new government.

Burn has won national and international awards for research that improves our understanding of the permafrost environment and the history of human relationship to the land in the North.

From 2002 until 2012, he was NSERC’s Northern Research Chair in Permafrost in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. His contributions have been made in partnership with a wide range of organizations, in particular Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Yukon Parks, Parks Canada, the Village of Mayo, Yukon and Aurora Colleges, the City of Dawson, and the Departments of Transportation in the Yukon and NWT. Burn has also been involved with the environmental and regulatory reviews of several northern projects, including the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project and, most recently, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.

Doing field work in the same location for several decades is the key to valuable climate change research, according to Burn, who has been investigating permafrost in the western Arctic since the early 1980s. His mentor, pioneering scientist J. Ross Mackay, who passed away in 2014, has data going back another three decades. The “active layer” that thaws and freezes above the permafrost every year appears to be getting deeper, says Burn. This has huge implications because the top of permafrost is commonly full of ice.

Chris Burn LUT3568Permafrost field work in Canada is notoriously difficult. Sites are often remote; the logistics are complex and expensive. Different types of terrain — slopes versus flat ground — respond differently to melt. And researchers have to navigate through tricky questions of contingency and convergence (how phenomena combine and interact) as well as the emergence of entirely new phenomena (such as more vegetation cover trapping snow and raising ground temperatures) to translate data into accurate models.

To navigate these challenges, Burn relies on decades of knowledge about northern environments and an indispensable ecosystem of collaborators. Ultimately, his intent is to “provide really solid evidence as to how permafrost is responding to a new climatic regime.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in ,
Share: Twitter, Facebook