Photo of Chancellor's Professor Chris Burn

Chancellor's Professor Chris Burn

Permafrost and ground ice; Physical geography of northwest Canada

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 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 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 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 40-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, 25 Master’s and five PhD theses have been completed in the program, with one Ph.D. thesis and one M.Sc. project underway. He has supervised eight Master students in the Northern Studies program.

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 as co-chair of NSERC’s Committee 1506 (Discovery Grants for Geosciences) and is 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 

  • Permafrost and infrastructure sustainability (Emma Stockton, Ph.D. student; NSERC funded)
  • Permafrost and climate change in the western Arctic (NSERC funded).

2022-2023 Courses

  • GEOG 4108 Fall – Permafrost
  • GEOG 5001 Fall – Modeling Environmental Systems
  • NRTH 5009 Summer – 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

Burn CR, Lewkowicz AG, Wilson MA. 2021. Long-term field measurements of climate-induced thaw subsidence above ice wedges on hillslopes, western Arctic Canada. Permafrost and Periglac Process. (2)261-276 doi 10.1002/ppp.2113


Publications 2016-2019 with graduate students

Bishop-Legowski, S., and Burn, C.R. 2019. Permafrost and Thermal Anomalies in Talus Slopes near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. In Cold Regions Engineering 2019: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering and the 8th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 18-22 August 2019, Quebec City, QC. Edited by J-P. Bilodeau, D.F. Nadeau, D. Fortier and D. Conciatori. American Society of Civil Engineers: Reston, VA: 508-515.

Wilson, A.M., Burn, C.R., and Humphreys, E.R. 2019. Vegetation development and variation in near-surface ground temperatures at Illisarvik, western Arctic coast. In Cold Regions Engineering 2019: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering and the 8th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 18-22 August 2019, Quebec City, QC. Edited by J-P. Bilodeau, D.F. Nadeau, D. Fortier and D. Conciatori. American Society of Civil Engineers: Reston, VA: 687-695.

Humphries, J., Burn, C.R., MacDougall, S., and Brais, C. 2019. Storm wind frequency and direction, Dempster Highway, Richardson Mountains, Yukon and Northwest Territories. In Cold Regions Engineering 2019: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering and the 8th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 18-22 August 2019, Quebec City, QC. Edited by J-P. Bilodeau, D.F. Nadeau, D. Fortier and D. Conciatori. American Society of Civil Engineers: Reston, VA: 137-145.

Stockton, E.J., Burn, C.R., Idrees, M., Calmels, F., and Elmer, K. 2019. Monitoring Ground Temperatures in Permafrost Along the Dempster Highway, Yukon and NWT. In Cold Regions Engineering 2019: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Cold Regions Engineering and the 8th Canadian Permafrost Conference, 18-22 August 2019, Quebec City, QC. Edited by J-P. Bilodeau, D.F. Nadeau, D. Fortier and D. Conciatori. American Society of Civil Engineers: Reston, VA: 92-101.

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 

Community Posters


Media Views

Graduate Student Projects

Jennifer Humphries (M.Sc.): Management of snow conditions and its effects on permafrost, Hurricane Alley, Dempster Highway, Yukon. Jennifer is studying the wind regime at the Yukon-N.W.T. border, where blowing snow is a hazard to traffic on the Dempster Highway. She is conducting a field experiment using snow fences to trap snow and reduce accumulation near the road, and to examine the effect this has on ground temperatures. Her initial results point to the unusual lee side mountain winds in the area that create a snow pack of very high density.

Patrick Jardine (M.Sc.) Management of snow conditions and their effects on permafrost degradation beside the Dempster Highway, Yukon. Patrick is studying the role that snow management may have on the thermal regime of permafrost beside highways built on permafrost. He will be undertaking an experiment in the Blackstone Uplands that involves crushing snow accumulation beside the road embankment in order to raise snow density and hence lower its thermal resistivity. We anticipate that the ground will cool efficiently in winter as a result, and arrest permafrost degradation.

Emma Stockton (Ph.D.): Permafrost and infrastructure sustainability, western Arctic Canada. Emma is examining various aspects of the ground thermal regime along the Dempster Highway and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, including a comparison on conditions beneath and beside the road, the effect of soil moisture on ground temperatures, and the role of snow accumulation at the sides of the embankment. Her work is supported by the NWT Geoscience Office and Transport Canada.

Recent Theses (completed)

Saille Bishop-Legowski: Thermal regime of two talus slopes in northwestern Ontario. January 2019.

Derek Tokarski: Spatial and temporal trends of snow-cover properties in a large subarctic basin: implications for basin-wide, end-of-winter snow water equivalent estimates. August 2018. (co-supervision with Murray Richardson).

Alice Wilson: Vegetation succession and environmental relations at the Illisarvik drained lake experiment, western Arctic coast, Canada. May 2018.

Andree-Anne Laforce: Spatial variability of carbon emissions within a drained lake basin and its surrounding tundra, Illisarvik, Northwest Territories. January 2018. (co-supervision with Elyn Humphreys)

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.


  • 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