As permafrost melts from increasingly warmer summers, it carries the surrounding dirt with it. Fresh water moves the sediments downwards towards rivers and lakes, bringing with it whatever chemicals are within it.
This could have serious implications for the people who depend on the water, as well as the fish and mammals that live in or around the water. And now Aurora Research Institute special projects coordinator and librarian Erika Hille has been awarded a $10,000 scholarship to find out what those are.
“There’s a huge amount of regional variability even along just the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) in terms of how ice-rich the permafrost is, how susceptible it is to large disturbances and there’s a lot of spatial variability,” said Hille, who is now pursuing her PhD in the subject. “So one of the things we’re trying to capture is how do these large disturbances vary with space along the Dempster and the ITH?
“There may be regions where permafrost thaw doesn’t have as big an impact on water quality than in other regions.”
To determine the difference, Hille has set up numerous sampling points along the Dempster and ITH, as well as two sites in the eastern Arctic, one near Iqaluit and the other near resolute.
“Unlike the western Arctic, permafrost thaw is still occurring, but it’s not as obvious from the surface of the landscape. You’re not seeing those large disturbances, so it would be interesting to see how it is affecting the water quality in these regions.”
Hill, who first came to Inuvik to study for her masters degree in 2009, said she was able to qualify for the Polar Northern Resident Scholarship by the Association of Canadian Universities of Northern Studies (ACUNS) after submitting her transcript and verifying her residency in the north for the last eight years.
Leading in to her current research, she pursued her masters looking at the effects of thaw slides — when the underlying permafrost is gone, the ground above it slumps down like a sinkhole — on the surrounding water quality in smaller lakes east of Inuvik. After completing her masters degree, she started work on at the ARI, looking at larger disturbances like fires, thaw slides, land slides and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway.
Now she gets to look at the effects of melting permafrost across the Arctic and compare how different environments respond as she pursues her research full-time and complete her doctorate with Queens University.
“Now that I have a clear idea of what I’m looking at for my PhD, it will be data collection this summer and analysis will start in this fall,” said Hille, who expressed her thanks to her supervisors Steve Kokelj and Scott Lamourex. “It’s nice to be recognized by an institution like ACUNS. They have such a good track record of promoting northern science and research.”