Chris Burn remembers it exactly. It was December 1979 and he was an undergrad at Durham University in England listening to a lecture on melting permafrost. Three years later he was on the ground in Mayo, spending his summer digging through the Yukon's dirt. He’s been going back to the North ever since.
Now a chancellor’s professor at Carleton University, Burn is one of the preeminent scientists researching how climate change is impacting permafrost. He’s authored roughly 150 peer-reviewed studies and was awarded the Polar Medal in 2018 for his contributions to Arctic science. No other single individual has been granted more research licenses in the territories. And yet, he’s the first to tell you how little he knows.
“The more you study, the more you realize how much you have to learn,” he says. The hallmark of his career has been meticulous, perpetual data collection over many decades in the Mackenzie Delta. A single research season just isn’t enough time. “It’s very difficult to make observations of lasting significance if it’s something you’ve observed once and disappear again.”
It’s only when you look at a place long enough that you’re able to see what’s changing.
Of course, the signs aren’t invisible. How climate change is impacting the North is well documented. Over the past 30 years the Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Permafrost is not so permanent anymore, thawing and collapsing at alarming speed. Sea ice that was once frozen year-round is melting and ocean levels are rising all over the world. The past two decades of warming have exceeded even the most extreme projections from scientists. “Large magnitude events,” once rare, are now disturbingly common, says Burn. On Banks Island in the Arctic Archipelago, the number of landslides from melting permafrost over the past 40 years has shot up a terrifying 6,000 per cent.
Every aspect of life in the North is at risk from what’s rapidly approaching on the horizon. So they come to study it. Researchers from all around the world migrate to the territories each year (pre-pandemic, anyway) to mine data and draw conclusions about what the future will hold for these lands, and for our way of life.
The Nunavut Research Institute (NRI)—that territory’s scientific licensing body—doesn’t currently filter its database of approved projects by topics like climate change, but its most recent compendium does offer a snapshot of the kind of scientific research happening in the North. In 2019, there were 168 licensed research projects in Nunavut, 86 of which were in the physical and natural sciences. Those 168 projects were undertaken by 955 licensed researchers representing Canadian universities (58 per cent), Canadian government agencies (21 per cent), NGOs (10 per cent), foreign universities (seven per cent), and private consultants (two per cent). Inuit organizations accounted for just one per cent of the research taking place in Nunavut.
Out of his own financial backers, Burn has particular praise for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and its discovery grants. Instead of paying for a single year’s research project (which NSERC also does), the discovery grants sustain long-scale research programs over many years. The kind of programs Burn has been overseeing for decades.
“In many ways, we’re the envy of the world,” he says. “In the United States, the support is project-based. In the UK, it’s project-based… The result is, particularly in the Earth sciences, Canada has always punched above our weight.”
Getting that funding requires experience, a lot of paperwork and “a bit of dark magic,” says Brian Horton, manager of climate change research at YukonU’s Research Centre. The university has a variety of funders behind its permafrost and climate change projects, says Horton, including core support from the territorial government, as well as money from NSERC, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Transport Canada and often industry partners who match any government-generated funds. There’s been a big investment over the past decade to collaborate with Highways and Public Works, he mentions, to manage the impacts of thaws on Yukon’s roadways.
One of the biggest challenges remains finding applications for all that research. Studies from different territories and agencies have historically been siloed off from each other, and data isn’t always shared between departments. “So much ends up on a shelf and not referred back to,” Horton says. That’s changing now, somewhat. Northern communities are also starting to initiate their own climate change projects, based on their local observations of the land.
Something else that’s changing is who’s doing the research. Horton was born and raised in Whitehorse, and developed an interest in science as a teenager. He recalls the kind of researchers visiting the Yukon at the time. They were mostly men, most of them mid-to-late career. Now, slowly but surely, that landscape is shifting.
“There are more and more women taking leadership roles in research in the territory,” he says. “There are more Indigenous researchers that are playing an active role. It does feel like there has been a change in the demographic.”
Jocelyn Joe-Strack is part of that change, and also familiar with the demographics of researchers who come to the North. She also grew up in Whitehorse, a member of the Champagne and Aisihik First Nations. Over the years, she’s watched scientists—mostly white, almost always from elsewhere—travel across her homeland extracting data.
Now, she’s research chair of environmental monitoring and knowledge mobilization at YukonU's Research Centre, where she’s developing new priorities for how the territory will grapple with its rapidly changing ecosystem. Last winter, for example, she helped organize a gathering where the Council of Yukon First Nations officially declared a climate change emergency. She’s also working with a team of 14 youth from the territory on a Yukon Climate Action Fellowship. The best thing she can do with her position, she says, is give others an opportunity.
“I just want to say, ‘Come my nephews, come my sweet little nieces. Here, know yourself, understand, have this land.’ From there, you stand and go forward and pull those behind you.”
Joe-Strack’s academic journey began by studying biochemistry at the University of British Columbia before eventually switching to microbiology and completing her master’s in geography. So she has a keen grasp of the systems at work within our bodies and our environment, and how they interact.
“I like understanding foundations,” she says. “I understand foundations of our world, down to the atom, but now I like understanding the foundations of our hearts, our souls.”
When it comes to the latter, climate change research is often lacking. It’s why Joe-Strack calls herself a “scientist in recovery.” Visiting a place, recording your observations, and leaving again is extractive, she says. Researchers often overlook sharing their knowledge with the people who live on the land and know it best.
“Research should be an exercise of giving,” she says. “I think we have a little way to go on that.”
Think of it not as an abandonment of what climate change science has been in the North, but about correcting an imbalance—a shift in focus.
“Right now, we walk in the world as half a person,” Joe-Strack says. “We need to devote resources on an equal scale to really revitalizing and reconnecting our heart and our soul with our decisions.”
Her dad’s generation helped kick open the door for self-determination in the Yukon. They signed land agreements with Canada’s government and took control of their destiny so that no scientists could come trudging through their lands anymore without permission or partnership. When Joe-Strack started her academic career, she felt that fight was mostly finished. She was naive, she says now. There’s still so much more to be done, and so much to understand about what’s coming.
She asked an Elder once if it was worth it to keep fighting. “It’s always worth the fight,” he told her, “because it’s up to us to fight for those behind us.”