Permafrost thaw in Salluit shifts land, lives

“I feel the whole town should move”


Residents of Salluit see dangers of global warming up close, and they're scared. (FILE PHOTO)

Residents of Salluit see dangers of global warming up close, and they’re scared. (FILE PHOTO)

This section of road near Salluit was repaired recently for damage caused by melting permafrost. (FILE PHOTO)

This section of road near Salluit was repaired recently for damage caused by melting permafrost. (FILE PHOTO)

Postmedia News

In his seven terms as mayor of Salluit, Qalingo Angutigirk has tried to look after his people, and their land. But it’s not an easy job when the ground is literally shifting under his feet.

Since 1998 Salluit, the province’s second northernmost community, has been hit by a series of landslides. Scientists blame it on the melting of the permafrost, the fragile underground layer of soil and rock that remains frozen year round — or is supposed to.

Though Angutigirk, 72, is familiar with the science behind the problem, he offers a more concrete example.

“A long time ago, in the old days, to bury a body, we only had to dig two feet. Now we have to dig all the way down,” he says, shaking his head. The deeper digging is necessary because what was once permafrost and closer to the ground’s surface has melted, turning into mud. Many people in the south have now become familiar with the problem of melting Arctic sea ice, which is endangering wildlife like polar bears and walruses, and affecting the lives of indigenous peoples. But it isn’t only the ice that’s melting in the North; it’s the earth itself.

Permafrost underlies almost half of Canada’s ground surface. In many ways, permafrost defines the North. It determines construction and town planning, as well as the region’s fragile ecosystem.

In Salluit and other northern communities, there is no underground plumbing since pipes would freeze in winter. Instead, the water truck comes by to fill the residents’ water tanks, and a sewage truck collects raw sewage. Frame houses rest on sturdy stilts some 50 centimetres above the ground to allow for airflow and reduce the amount of heat transferred from the house to the surface of the ground.

In warm weather, hardy lichens and grasses grow rapidly on the surface, providing food for wildlife and helping to protect the permafrost below.

Recent studies indicate the permafrost of the southern Arctic is deteriorating at an alarming rate. In some regions of what is called the discontinuous zone, close to the tree line, where permafrost exists in patches, there has been an estimated 50-per-cent decrease in permafrost coverage in the last 50 years.

Though Salluit is above the tree line, Quebec scientists have focused their research here, where the melting permafrost has destabilized not only the land, but also the people who live on it So far, no one has died in one of Salluit’s landslides, but people worry that may not always be the case.

Angutigirk says he’ll never forget the 1998 landslide, which occurred south of the town site in an area known by some locals as Salluit Two or New Town. “It was a huge slide,” he says, stretching out his arms, “500-feet wide.”

In the wake of that landslide, 17 houses were moved by trailer — at considerable expense — from Salluit Two to a neighbourhood some people here call Second Salluit Two. Despite that measure, Angutigirk still worries. There have been more landslides, the most recent in September 2010, which caused the closure of the road to the local airport for nearly two months, forcing villagers to take a detour to reach the airport.

There has even been talk of relocating the entire village. Village officials have been working closely with a team of researchers from Université Laval, led by Michel Allard, a geomorphologist who studies changes to the Earth’s surface. Allard is one of the world’s leading experts in permafrost. A member of Universite Laval’s Centre d’études nordiques, Allard has been travelling to the North since 1979. Most of his research takes place during summer when it is possible to dig, drill and sample soils.

To understand changes in permafrost, says Allard, you have to begin by understanding something scientists call the “active layer” — the top layer of soil that thaws in summer and refreezes in winter. Permafrost, which contains ice, rests beneath this active layer. “If you warm the ground’s surface, the active layer will get deeper, and when the active layer deepens, the ice in the permafrost melts,” Allard explained in a telephone interview.

Because Salluit rests on ice-bearing clay earth and is located at the bottom of a deep valley overlooking Sugluk Inlet, the village is especially susceptible.

Allard and his team, which includes colleagues from Université de Montreal, have established two automated meteorological stations in Salluit, allowing them to measure factors like air temperature and wind speed. They’ve also been monitoring the thickness of the active layer since 1992. In that time, Allard says the active layer has deepened by some 30 per cent.

“We started at 80 centimetres in 1992. In 2007, we reached 1.1 metres. The volume of permafrost in those 30 centimetres was about half ice, which means the ground has settled by about 15 centimetres.

That’s the basic principle of everything. On flat ground, this settling will affect the terrain, buildings and roads. On slopes, it creates instability and the risk of landslides,” said Allard.

The people of Salluit and those like Allard, who spend a great deal of time here, have no doubts about the existence of global warming. That’s because its impact is so dramatic in the North

Winters in Salluit, said Angutigirk, are not nearly as cold as they once were. “When I was a boy, even the kerosene thought the weather was too cold. It turned from red to white, and it turned oily, and it was slow when we poured it out. That doesn’t happen any more,” he said.

The locals miss the cold winters. “There were only eight days last year when it was minus 40. Usually, we get three months straight of minus 40. We like that. We’re wild,” said Noah Tayara, a member of the board of directors of Makivik Corp..

Extreme cold not only protects the permafrost; for the Inuit, it also means good hunting and fishing. Once the Hudson Bay freezes over, they can travel by snow machine to hunting and fishing camps in places like Deception Bay, some 60 kilometres east of Salluit

Usually, there is ice on Salluit Fiord until early July; last year the fiord ice drifted away in April. And in December, the fiord had still not frozen over. “It means we’re stuck here,” said Angutigirk, who still goes out on the land to hunt when he can

Allard believes that with proper planning and land management, the people of Salluit will be safe where they are, even considering the likelihood of further landslides. His team’s recommendations include using underground refrigeration systems to keep the ground frozen under buildings that are too large for posts; building on bedrock when the terrain is hilly or sloped; and preventing snow accumulation on hillsides and around buildings since thick snow can insulate the ground, causing further deterioration of the permafrost.

Some Salluit residents are less confident about their village’s safety. “The permafrost is unstable and slides. It’s not a game. I feel the whole town should move,” said town manager Paulusie Saviadjuk. Saviadjuk, 38, lives in one of the houses that was relocated from Salluit Two to Second Salluit Two.

Climate change has also had another direct and frightening impact on Saviadjuk’s life. In May 2006, Saviadjuk and a group of some 30 other hunters and fishermen found themselves stranded on Deception Bay. They’d come by snow machine and when unusually warm weather caused the snow to suddenly melt, they had no way of getting home. “We were saved by the mining company. We got home by charter planes. A boat had to come pick up our Ski-Doos,” recalled Saviadjuk.

Adami Keatainak owns a 42-foot boat involved in the rescue. With more and more hunters having to travel by boat instead of snow machine, his business has been booming: “I won’t say global warming’s bad,” joked Keatainak.

Another elder in the community, Donald Cameron, describes himself as “very very worried” about the changes connected to climate change and the deteriorating permafrost. “In the last five years, we’ve seen strange animals we’ve never seen here before — robins, dragonflies, wasps and bees,” said Cameron, who was born in Scotland, but who has lived in the North since he was a teenager working for the Hudson Bay Company.

If he had his way, Saviadjuk would like to see Salluit relocated to Deception Bay, where there are good roads, an airport and many lakes for fishing and hunting.

“We’re stuck here,” he says, looking out the window of his office at Salluit’s town hall. “It’s not a good place. It’s rough and muddy and there are barely any seals to hunt. The people are excellent, but it’s a bad town.”

Located 10 kilometres inland from the Hudson Strait, Salluit dates back to the mid 1920s when it was an independent fur trading post. Tayara remembers how, in the past, Salluit’s Inuit were almost always able to predict the weather. “We could save ourselves if we had to. Now we get big storms moving in suddenly with winds at over 100 kilometres an hour. In the last five years, a number of hunters have disappeared -and we’ve never found their Ski-Doos or belongings,” he said

In response to the housing shortage that plagues all of Nunavik — there are only 249 homes for Salluit’s 1,300 residents — there continue to be plans for new housing in Salluit.

But Tayara doesn’t think much of the idea of building new homes on bedrock outside town — even if bedrock is more stable than the clay earth closer to the town site. “We Inuit need to see the water. Our houses were always on the water. We need to see the food of the land: fish, caribou, seal, ducks and geese. If I see flat water, it gives me energy to go out and feed the community,” he said.

The problem of deteriorating permafrost goes beyond Salluit and is believed to be affecting much of Nunavik. Allard and his team recently extended their research on permafrost levels to four other Inuit villages — Akulivik, Puvurnituq, Kangirsuk and Tasiujaq.

“Comparative observations from recent satellite pictures and aerial photographs dating back 50 years, supported by field observations in Nunavik, as well as elsewhere in Canada, Alaska and Russia show that the thawing of the permafrost is occurring throughout the southern Arctic, or what is known as the discontinuous zone,” said Allard

Allard says he believes that if the current rate of permafrost deterioration remains the same, or worsens, over the next 20 to 30 years, we can expect more deformation of roads and buildings. But despite Allard’s worry over the future of our planet, he has confidence the people of Salluit will be able to adapt to the changing climate: “I’m impressed by the wisdom of the elders, and also by the dynamism of the next generation.”

Willie Keatainak, president of Qaqqalik, the local landholding corporation, wants others to know what is going on in Salluit. “North Americans are prone to having it easy. They want fuel and heat, even if they are disposing of a lot of fossil fuel that’s affecting the North,” he said.

Keatainak, who has four children and four grandchildren, shares Allard’s hope that the next generation will help find a solution to the village’s environmental problems: “My grandchildren are going to graduate university and do something to help this community.”

But even Keatainak acknowledges it may take more than that. He points up to the ceiling. “The man up there has a grip on all of this. We can only work with it.”

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