Melting permafrost threatens Arctic housing projects
The hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories is seen in this photo taken Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009. (AP / Rick Bowmer)
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, June 20, 2010 12:52PM EDT
MONTREAL - An Arctic community that has seen its fire hall sink and roads buckle in the melting permafrost is now shifting future building projects away from town.
The effect of vanishing permafrost -- soil normally frozen year round -- is now being felt across Canada's North, and the Quebec village of Salluit is just one of many Arctic towns trying to adapt to an increasingly warmer climate.
Rising temperatures are being blamed for natural disturbances in the North, such as the rapidly eroding coastline of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., and unprecedented floods that knocked out two bridges in Pangnirtung, Nunavut.
Salluit even considered relocating the whole town. One of Quebec's northernmost communities, Salluit saw its local fire station sink into the softening ground a year after it opened.
Across town, paved roads have crumpled, foundations of buildings have cracked and now even summertime grave-digging isn't what it used to be.
A few years ago, it took considerable effort just to dig a foot into what was once ice-solid earth, says one resident of the Nunavik village.
"We used to need hammers and all that because it was frozen solid all the way through," said Noah Tayara, a local representative for Makivik Corp., northern Quebec's governing body.
"(Today), we don't need those. We can shovel to six feet without having to go through the permafrost."
For years, the people of Salluit, shielded by a bunker-like valley on Sugluk Inlet off the Hudson Strait, faced the prospect of uprooting their town to move away from the defrosting turf.
Following two years of scientific studies, experts have concluded the village can stay put. But the community's much-needed expansion will have to go elsewhere and follow specific construction guidelines.
"We can safely say that there's no relocation of houses that are sitting permanently right now," said Michael Cameron, a Salluit municipal councillor.
Instead, he said the village hopes to secure government funding to build up to 500 two-bedroom homes at several chosen sites within a few kilometres of the community. Cameron noted the shift to outlying areas is partly due to a lack of space in the town of 1,100.
The new housing developments, which aim to ease overcrowding that often sees three generations living under one roof, will be constructed in sturdier areas that feature a mix of bedrock, clay, sand, gravel and permafrost.
The plans were presented at a public meeting two weeks ago, helping calm fears the town was under the threat of mudslides.
"There is permafrost beneath us and it's changing, but they said it's not so big a problem that we would . . . suffer a landslide into the sea," said Paul Okituk, general manager of Qaqqalik Landholding Corp. in Salluit.
Most homes sit on stilts that keep them about a metre off the permafrost, so many of the posts will have to be adjusted annually to reduce warping, Okituk said.
Locals started questioning the stability of the area when a small landslide struck a 17-unit housing development in 1998, he said.
"A unit that was close to the river almost got taken away by the slide," Okituk said.
He says the region has seen extreme weather patterns in the last decade -- including warmer summers and shorter winters that barely see temperatures dip below -30 C when they've been known in the past to hit -60 C with the windchill.
The brief winter last year shortened the window of opportunity for local hunters to reach caribou herds, impacting the local way of life.
"Salluit has had to order out for food from other communities that have (meat) because of the early thaw and late freeze-up," Okituk said of game shipments that arrived through a hunter-support program between northern communities.
"We enjoyed the good weather. (But) it was too long, because bad weather also brings in good stuff, too."