Reseachers to map out climate change hazards in Nunavut community

Arviat chosen because of rising shoreline and slumping permafrost


A man rides an ATV along the Hudson Bay coast in Arviat, in this October 2013 photo. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

A man rides an ATV along the Hudson Bay coast in Arviat, in this October 2013 photo. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

This map shows where Trevor Bell and his colleagues plan to map out potential future landscape hazards around Arviat this summer. (COURTESY TREVOR BELL)

This map shows where Trevor Bell and his colleagues plan to map out potential future landscape hazards around Arviat this summer. (COURTESY TREVOR BELL)

The community of Arviat could undergo a climate change analysis this summer so that researchers can map hazardous areas where shorelines are eroding and permafrost is melting.

According to an application filed with the Nunavut Impact Review Board, Trevor Bell, a geography professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, is leading a project called “Landscape Hazard Mapping in Arviat, Nunavut.”

“The map that we produce will identify how and where community lands are changing or most likely to change in the coming decades,” Bell writes in a project summary.

Bell and two colleagues — a graduate student and an adjunct professor who used to work for the Geological Survey of Canada — plan to use aerial photos and satellite images along with ground surveys and small ground samples to produce physical and digital maps.

They will also use GPS survey equipment and ground penetrating radar.

Contacted at his office in St. John’s, Bell said Arviat was chosen by the Nunavut government because the ground there is very dynamic.

For one, it’s an area where glaciers hung on for a long time before fully receding, which means the compressed ground in the central Arctic is still rising by a few millimetres each year, now that it has shed all that weight, Bell said.

As a result, the relative sea level is actually going down on the western coast of Hudson Bay as the land rises slowly upward. This could create marine hazards as water becomes more shallow near the shoreline, Bell said.

While this is happening, some areas in Arviat, which are underlain with ice-rich permafrost, will melt in warmer temperatures causing slumping and depressions.

In fact, the permafrost on the coast there tends to have high salt content, since the land was once underwater. The salt weakens the molecular bonds of the ice, making it more susceptible to melting, Bell said.

Bell and his colleagues plan to use core sampling to examine the content of the permafrost.

Melting permafrost has become a serious challenge in Nunavut and Nunavik of late as communities and businesses wrestle with the cost of repairing old, and building new, infrastructure.

In addition to looking at the ground in Arviat, researchers plan to examine building maintenance records to compile an inventory of maintenance related to shifting foundations “to establish the degree of structural damage and repair experienced by different parts of the community,” the proposal states.

“This will help us understand how much the ground has changed in the past. We will also talk with the hamlet council and planners to ask how we should produce our project map so that it is of greatest benefit to them.”

That map will highlight hazard zones so municipal planners can take that into account when planning future community development and construction.

“We will provide a preliminary map to the hamlet council and present initial results during a GN-led community consultation on Landscape Hazard Mapping in the last week of August,” the proposal states.

“Our final map and report will be delivered to Arviat hamlet council and partners in 2015.”

The project application says work will take about 40 days and will be conducted this summer, in July and August.

Researchers plan to survey an area between 21 kilometres north of the community and 13 kilometres southwest.

It’s up to the NIRB to screen the project and ensure it does not unduly impact local residents or the environment.

Members of the public and agencies have until July 10 to submit comments or questions to the NIRB about it. You can find information about the project here.

The project is funded through ArcticNet and was created through a partnership with the Government of Nunavut’s departments of community and government services, and environment.

Bell said the team might do similar landscape hazard mapping in Kugluktuk, perhaps next year, depending on how long it takes to complete the Arviat project.

Also on the horizon, Bell said he and his colleagues are applying for funding to create something called a “cost of adaptation” map, likely for Arviat.

An extremely practical tool, the map will not only identify potential future landscape hazards but will cost out each area of low, medium and high risk.

Planners would then be able to decide whether they want to spend more money on climate change mitigation measures for a desirable, but high-risk area, or choose a more stable, perhaps less convenient area, that may cost less in the long run.

The pilot project could then be duplicated in other communities, Bell said.

That project still requires funding to go forward.

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