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The disappearing permafrost

Navigating a thawing landscape

Stepping out onto the sidewalk from Robarts Library, it’s obvious that winter is in full swing. The air has gone cold, turning that pleasant fall nip into a winter bite. And although it would seem that the freeze is inescapable, not all temperatures are dropping.

Despite the frigid weather, global warming is still in effect. Since 1975, average global temperatures have been increasing at a rate of roughly 0.15–0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, prompting consequences such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, disappearing Arctic ice, and severe droughts and floods.

Another major unseen consequence of this climb lies deep beneath the tundra soil. The frozen expanse known as permafrost is beginning to thaw.

According to Dr. William Gough, a climate change researcher at UTSC, the thawing process occurs annually. “The surface area actually thaws and then refreezes and thaws… and that’s called the active layer.” The active layer supports vegetation and wildlife and acts as a buffer for the area underneath, allowing it to stay frozen even during the summer.

This subsurface expanse is called permafrost, soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years, though it can be thousands of years old.

Although associated with the frosty expanse of the Arctic Circle, variations of permafrost can be found in in almost all provinces and territories with the exceptions of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Approximately 40–50 per cent of Canada is underlain with permafrost.

Gough studies the effects of permafrost shrinkage along the James Bay coastline in Northern Ontario, searching to see if permafrost is still present in the region.

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