Infrastructure Lands and Environment

Climate case study: Monitoring key to successful permafrost adaptation in Arviat, Nunavut


Thawing permafrost has been observed across the Arctic, causing infrastructure woes for residents and planners alike, and Arviat, a hamlet on the western coast of Hudson Bay, is no exception.

Residents there are seeing cracks in the walls of the houses, wavy or uneven floors, and the Northern Store is due for renovations after the ground it was built on shifted thanks to thawing permafrost.

Adaptation to these changes is needed in order to reduce infrastructure costs for the future, but monitoring and evaluation are important steps in ensuring such adaptation projects follow through on their promises.

Permafrost is ground that has remained frozen for at least two consecutive years. Almost half of Canada’s landmass is underlain by this frozen soil type. It is typically found in areas where annual average air temperatures are below freezing. That said, rapidly warming Arctic temperatures threaten permafrost survival, and models have predicted that permafrost areas will decline between 37 and 81 per cent by the end of this century.

Changes to the permafrost layer have important implications for the landscape, since the upper layers of permafrost become more unstable and vulnerable to erosion as they thaw, having lost the ice that “glued” the soil together. Thawing permafrost can collapse or slump, drastically changing the landscape, the way that water flows over and throughout the ground, and damaging homes or roads that are built on top of it.

Permafrost that is particularly full of ice is especially prone to slumping, which is likely the case in Arviat, a community built over ice rich organic soils. The effects of thawing permafrost are already being felt in the community, and several projects are underway to facilitate adaptation.

The Arviat Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, which was created by the Government of Nunavut, Canadian Institute of Planners, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and Natural Resources Canada, is just one example of this. Consultation with the community during the creation of the plan identified issues such as shifting porches and housing piles due to permafrost thaw, and concerns about contamination from the sewage lagoon leaking into the surrounding landscape as permafrost becomes more permeable as it melts. The plan outlines next steps for responding to these observed changes and others that are expected in the future.

Other adaptation actions in Arviat have included the installation of a permafrost monitoring site in the community as part of the Nunavut Permafrost Monitoring Network, as well as ongoing work by researchers from Memorial University who are using ground samples to create maps of the ground types spread across Arviat. Active adaptation projects have resulted from these initiatives, including retrofitting pilings in homes and businesses to account for the shifting ground underfoot. Hazard maps have also been created to guide planners in deciding the best locations for future development, in order to avoid potentially unstable areas and prevent the need for retrofits in the future.

While implementation of such projects is key, it must be followed by monitoring and evaluation, according to Melanie Flynn, a Master’s student with the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group (CCARG), housed within the Department of Geography at McGill University. Flynn stresses the importance of following up on adaptation projects to make sure they are doing everything they are intended to do. “Otherwise,” she says, “a project may cause maladaptation—negative impacts instead of positive ones. Through monitoring and evaluation, we can make sure that we learn from our successes and mistakes in adaptation.”

The monitoring and evaluation of climate change adaptation projects is particularly important, Flynn says, given that climate change is expected to be such a long-term problem and “because climate change impacts are uncertain, we don’t know exactly what the impacts will look like or how quickly or slowly we may see changes happening.”

There are currently few established ways to evaluate climate change adaptation, especially at a community level. Evaluation tools exist for higher level policy documents, such as national adaptation plans, but there is little available for formally reflecting on the successes and failures of a community level project.

Flynn has decided to tackle this issue for her Master’s thesis, and is working to develop a general framework that can be applied to adaptation projects in the Arctic. Her work is being carried out in conjunction with ongoing research done by CCARG to evaluate climate change adaptation across Nunavut.

Using Arviat as a trial case study, Flynn has developed an evaluation framework that is hopefully general enough to work for any adaptation project. Her method is a four-step cycle.

“I really wanted to make something which could be used to help encourage people to learn from the evaluations, so I made the framework a cycle, meaning that what you learn from the evaluation should be fed back into the project to improve it for the future.”

The first two steps involve understanding what problem the project is trying to address and how the project is supposed to go about doing that. The third step involves semi-structured interviews with key players to find out where the project is at. The final step involves looking at the project within the big picture, using an Adaptation Readiness Rating, based on eight factors: Decision Making, Institutional Organization, Public Support, Usable Science, Funding and Resources, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), Leadership, and Stakeholder Engagement.

To test this framework, Flynn applied it to one of the existing adaptation projects in Arviat: the Terrain Analysis in Nunavut (TAN) project, a four-year initiative (2012-2016) established in seven communities in Nunavut, including Arviat. The project was led by the Government of Nunavut’s Community and Government Services and funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

The TAN project combines a variety of information sources, including radar satellite images, digital elevation models, optical images, site visits, and local knowledge in order to identify areas of ground that will likely be impacted by climate changeimportant information for decision makers and planners to use when building future development. So far, the initiative has created three maps along with year-end reports for the communities. Included within the TAN project was a smaller community engagement aspect called Arviat Climate Change Community Engagement, which took place in 2013-2014. This was a chance to share the results of the TAN project with the community.

When Flynn applied her framework to this project, she found it to be on track to achieving its desired outcomes. Key strengths she identified in the project were its commitment to community engagement, as well as the way it brought together many of the research groups who were already studying thawing permafrost in Arviat. This last factor was especially important, she noted, “As this helps to avoid organizations re-doing the same research.”

In the final step of the evaluation, she applied the Adaptation Readiness Rating system. The project rated high in Institutional Organization, since there was good coordination and commitment by the organizations involved; it also scored high in Public Support, which was not surprising, given the project’s ongoing community engagement components. However, it scored lower on Usable Science, Funding and Resources, IQ, Leadership and Stakeholder Engagement. It scored the lowest on Decision Making.

“The uncertainty about climate change impacts and some of the pressing short-term needs in Nunavut (for example, the housing crisis) mean that climate change considerations are being undermined by other important factors,” Flynn says. “This is a common issue in climate change and otherwise where short-term needs take priority over long-term planning. However, I honestly believe that there is a way to achieve short-term needs and adapt to long-term climate change.”

Next steps for Flynn including sharing her results with the community of Arviat through teleconferences and informational posters, presenting her work at conferences, and possibly flying to Iqaluit to present to decision makers there, as well. She’d like to see decision makers and policy makers include monitoring and evaluation in their adaptation plans from the very beginning.

“In my opinion,” she says, “it should be included from the outset of a project; it should be budgeted for and discussed with key project stakeholders right from the design stage.”

Thawing permafrost, and other impacts, will continue to be an issue in the changing Arctic. Ensuring that adaptation projects are actually addressing the problems they set out to solve is key to effectively adapting to a changing climate.◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/oksanaphoto

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  • GLessard

    The photo does not look much like anything I saw during four years of living in Arviat..