Photo of Chris Burn

Chris Burn

Permafrost and ground ice; Physical geography of northwest Canada; Late Georgian natural philosophers

Degrees:B.Sc. Durham, M.A. Carleton, Ph.D. Carleton, D.Sc. Durham, P.Geo.
Phone:613-520-2600 x 3784
Office:A330 Loeb Building


Chris Burn is the supervisor of Carleton’s new Graduate Programs in Northern Studies. He held an NSERC Senior Northern Research Chair at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies from 2002-12, throughout the program’s life. He came to Canada in 1981 as a Commonwealth Scholar, and completed both the M.A. (Geography, 1983) and Ph.D. (Geology, 1986) at Carleton. He then moved to U.B.C. as a Killam fellow, to study with J.Ross Mackay, the world authority in his field. In 1989 Chris was awarded an NSERC University Research Fellowship, which he brought back to Carleton in 1992. In January 2018, Chris was awarded a D.Sc. (Geography) by Durham University, after examination of his published research by an international panel. Most recently, Chris received the Polar Medal from Her Excellency Rt. Hon. Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada.

Chris is committed to long-term field investigations of frozen ground. His research is focused on the relations between climate and permafrost. He has been particularly interested in determining the response of ground temperatures and the active layer to climate warming as observed in the western Arctic since 1970. His program involves partnerships with several northern agencies, particularly Yukon Parks, Parks Canada, the Village of Mayo, Yukon and Aurora Colleges, and the Departments of Transportation in Yukon and NWT. Dr Burn has 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.

His research program strives to provide explanations for the behaviour of permafrost terrain that are founded in field verification of physically based models. Projects completed and in progress at Herschel Island relate the present ground thermal regime to climate change over the past 120 years. Fieldwork there has also shown how temperatures inside an ice cellar at Pauline Cove allow comparison between convective and conductive heat transfer. Long-term observations at the Illisarvik drained lake field experiment build on Dr Mackay’s work, and have just given an uninterrupted 30-year record of active-layer development that may be the longest in North America. Ground temperatures collected at Illisarvik confirm the effect of regional warming in winter on summer thaw depth. In central and southern Yukon data collection is primarily concerned with the effect of changes in surface conditions on ground temperatures, especially following forest fire in Takhini River Valley, near Whitehorse, and after thaw slumping, near Mayo. Graduate student projects are woven into the general program that covers these themes.

The work has primarily been supported by NSERC, PCSP, the Aurora Research Institute, and Transport Canada. Northern agencies also provide critical assistance, especially the Village of Mayo, Herschel Island Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, and Tuktut Nogait National Park. Since 1992, 20 Master’s and five PhD theses have been completed in the program, with one Ph.D. thesis and four M.Sc. projects underway.

Chris has served as Chair of NSERC’s Committee 186 (Scholarships and Fellowships Committee for Ecology and Earth Sciences, 2010); as Chair of the Canadian Northern Studies Trust Northern Science Committee for adjudication of Weston Awards for Northern Research (2007-11); as Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (2004-09); President of the Arctic Circle (2009-12); and Co-Chair of Transport Canada’s Network of Expertise in Northern Transportation Infrastructure Research (2011-14).  He currently serves on PCSP’s Program Review Committee, and is a Vice-President of the International Permafrost Association.

 In 2012 Chris edited a 242-page, multidisciplinary account of the natural and cultural history of Herschel Island, Herschel Island Qikiqtaryuk. The book is a partnership with 12 supporting agencies, involving 43 authors, 24 of whom live north of 60°.  It is lavishly designed and carefully copy edited to be accessible to a broad audience, ranging from community members to graduate students beginning their program.

Chris Burn is an internationally recognized expert in the domain of permafrost and ground ice in Yukon and the western Arctic. A professor of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University, he is equally adept at fostering meaningful and productive partnerships with relevant stakeholders in Canada’s North, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the effects of climate change on permafrost terrain and tundra ecosystems.                   Photo credit: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall Her Excellency presents the Polar Medal to Christopher Robert Burn. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, presented honours to Canadians in celebration of their exceptional achievements. The ceremony took place at Rideau Hall on November 5, 2018.


  • Polar Medal. November 2018.
  • Camsell Medal, Royal Canadian Geographical Society. November 2014.
  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for service to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. April 2012.

Research Interests

  • Permafrost and ground ice
  • Physical Geography of Yukon and Northwest Territories

 Current Research Projects 

  • Assessment of soil carbon in permafrost, western Arctic Canada (Marcus Phillips, Ph.D. student; NSERC funded)
  • Permafrost and climate change in the western Arctic (NSERC funded).

2018 – 2019 Courses

  • GEOG 4108 Permafrost
  • GEOG 5001 Modeling Environmental Systems
  • NRTH 5008 Introductory Northern Field Course
  • NRTH 5009 Field Course in Canada’s North

Key Publications

Burn, C.R., and Smith, C.A.S. 1988.  Observations of the “thermal offset” in mean annual ground temperature profiles at Mayo, Yukon Territory. Arctic, 41(2): 99‑104.

Burn, C.R., and Smith, M.W. 1990. Development of thermokarst lakes during the Holocene at sites near Mayo, Yukon Territory. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 1(2): 161-176.

Burn, C.R. 1997. Cryostratigraphy, paleogeography, and climate change during the early Holocene warm interval, western Arctic coast, Canada.  Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 34(7): 912-925.

Burn, C.R. 1998. The response (1958 to 1997) of permafrost and near-surface ground temperatures to forest fire, Takhini River valley, southern Yukon Territory.  Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 35(2): 184-199.

Burn, C.R. 2002. Tundra lakes and permafrost, Richards Island, western Arctic coast, Canada.  Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 39(8): 1281-1298.

Mackay, J.R., and Burn, C.R. 2002. The first 20 years (1978/79 to 1998/99) of ice-wedge growth at the Illisarvik experimental drained lake site, western Arctic coast, Canada.  Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 39(1): 95-111.

Burn, C.R.,and Zhang, Y. 2009. Permafrost and climate change at Herschel Island (Qikiqtaruk), Yukon Territory, Canada. Journal of Geophysical Research (Earth Surface), 114: F02001, doi:10.1029/2008JF001087.

Burn, C.R., and Kokelj, S.V. 2009. The environment and permafrost of the Mackenzie Delta area. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 20(2): 83-105. doi: 10.1002/ppp.655

Burn, C.R. (editor), 2012. Herschel Island Qikiqtaryuk:A natural and cultural history of Yukon’s Arctic island. Whitehorse: Wildlife Management Advisory Council for the Yukon North Slope.

Burn, C.R. and Nelson, F.E. 2017. In Memoriam, J. Ross Mackay 1915-2014. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(4): 998-1010. doi: 10.1080/24694452.2017.1314166


Publications 2014-2017 with graduate students

Gaanderse, A.J.R., Wolfe, S.A., and Burn, C.R. 2018. Composition and origin of a lithalsa related to lake-level recession and Holocene terrestrial emergence, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 43(5): 1032-1043. doi: 10.1002/esp.4302

Roy-Leveillee, P., and Burn, C.R. 2017. Near-shore talik development beneath shallow water in expanding thermokarst lakes, Old Crow Flats, Yukon. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 122(5): 1070-1089. doi: 10.1002/2016JF004022

O’Neill, H.B., and Burn, C.R. 2017. Talik formation at a snow fence in continuous permafrost, western Arctic, Canada. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 28(3): 558-565. doi: 10.1002/ppp.1950

O’Neill, H.B., and Burn, C.R. 2017. Impacts of variations in snow cover on permafrost stability, including simulated snow management, Dempster Highway, Peel Plateau, Northwest Territories. Arctic Science, 3(2): 150-178. doi: 10.1139/AS-2016-0036 

Phillips, M.R., Burn, C.R., Wolfe, S.A., Morse, P.D., Gaanderse, A.J., O’Neill, H.B., Shugar, D.H., and Gruber, S. 2015. Improving water content description of ice-rich permafrost soils. Paper 372. Proceedings, 7th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 21-23 September 2015, Quebec City, QC, Canadian Geotechnical Society, Richmond, BC.  7 p. See:

Idrees, M., Burn, C.R., Moore, J.L., and Calmels, F. 2015.  Monitoring permafrost conditions along the Dempster Highway. Paper 703. Proceedings, 7th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 21-23 September 2015, Quebec City, QC, Canadian Geotechnical Society, Richmond, BC.  8 p. See:

Gaanderse, A.J.R., Wolfe, S.A., and Burn, C.R. 2015. Origin and composition of a lithalsa in the Great Slave Lowland, Northwest Territories. Paper 259. Proceedings, 7th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 21-23 September 2015, Quebec City, QC, Canadian Geotechnical Society, Richmond, BC.  7 p. See:

O’Neill, H.B., Burn, C.R., Kokelj, S.V., and Lantz, T.C. 2015. “Warm” tundra: atmospheric and near-surface ground temperature inversions across an alpine tree line in continuous permafrost, western Arctic, Canada. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 26(2): 103-118. doi: 10.1002/ppp.1838.

Roy-Léveillée, P., Burn, C.R., and McDonald, I.D. 2014. Vegetation-permafrost relations within the forest-tundra ecotone near Old Crow, northern Yukon, Canada. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, 25: 127-135. doi: 10.1002/ppp.1805

Morse, P.D., and Burn, C.R. 2014. Perennial frost blisters of the outer Mackenzie Delta, western Arctic coast, Canada. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 39: 200-213. doi: 10.1002/esp.3439

Community Posters


Graduate Student Projects

Andrée-Anne Laforce (M.Sc.): Production of CO2 and methane at Illisarvik, N.W.T. Andrée-Anne is examining the production of carbon gases from nine different vegetation types at the Illisarvik experimental drained lake site near the western Arctic coast. She sampled off-gassing from the lake basin floor and surrounding tundra in summer 2016 and is examining both the rate of gas emission and the age of the emitted carbon. The study is co-supervised with Elyn Humphries.

Saille Bishop-Legowski (M.Sc.): Permafrost occurrence in northern Ontario. Saille is locating bodies of permafrost in talus slopes close to the north shore of Lake Superior. Her work will extend the zone of isolated patches of permafrost southwards by about 400 km in this region. The sites she is studying are analogous to low level permafrost in some parts of the European Alps.

Marcus Phillips (Ph.D.): Hummocks and carbon in permafrost terrain. Marcus is examining the carbon content of near-surface permafrost in the Mackenzie Delta area. He is interested in determining how carbon is differentially sequestered  in various biophysical settings separated by tree line and the boundary of the delta. The project is part of NSERC’s ADAPT initiative, and will consider the quantity and quality of carbon in various settings.

Alice Wilson (M.Sc.): Vegetation succession and active-layer dynamics, Illisarvik experimental drained lake site, Richards Island, N.W.T. Alice is studying the development of vegetation at Illisarvik, a lake near the western Arctic coast that was drained in 1978. She is examining how development of vegetation and other factors have influenced the long-term dynamics of the active layer (1979-2015) in the drained lake basin. The study is co-supervised with Elyn Humphries.

Recent Theses (completed)

Wendy Sladen (M.Sc.): Icings near the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, Great Slave Uplands, Northwest Territories. April 2017.

Brendan O’Neill (Ph.D.): The ground thermal regime of the Peel Plateau, Northwest Territories, Canada.  December 2016.

Loriane Poirier (M.Sc.): Étude de l’influence du debit et de la temperature de l’eau sur le regime thermique autour des ponceaux construits sur pergélisol. (The influence of water flow and temperature on the ground thermal regime around culverts constructed on permafrost.) (Civil Engineering, Université Laval.). (co-supervision with Guy Doré) September 2015.

Adrian Gaanderse (M.Sc.): Geomorphic origin of a lithalsa in the Great Slave Lowlands, N.W.T., Canada. January 2015.

Pascale Roy-Léveillée (Ph.D.): Permafrost and thermokarst lakes in the Old Crow Flats, northern Yukon, Canada. December 2014.


  • Canadian Association of Geographers
  • Geological Association of Canada
  • Canadian Quaternary Association
  • Canadian Geomorphology Research Group
  • Association of Professional Geoscientists of Ontario
  • Canadian Geophysical Union
  • American Geophysical Union