A small metal rod stands tall at kilometre 1456 on the Alaska Highway, as the land behind it starts to collapse from permafrost thaw.
It’s the first device of a new alarm system that will tell Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works when the road is under threat from further destruction from permafrost thaw.
“It’s very concerning to have this type of process, the ripping, so close to the road corridor,” Dr. Fabrice Calmels, research chair of geoscience at YukonU Research Centre, told CBC News.
We want to develop a system to remediate these types of issues, and protect the road from these hazards.”
Extreme temperatures one possible cause of thaw
Permafrost is any ground that is completely frozen for at least two consecutive years. In the Yukon, that means there is a thick layer of ice underneath the ground’s surface.
At this spot, known as the Takhini Slump by Calmels and his team, it’s thawing at faster rates than ever before.
Calmels and his researchers first came to this site two years ago to start their research. At that time, the slump was 95 metres from the road. Now, it’s 40 metres away.
Record-breaking temperatures in the Yukon this summer, caused by a heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, sped up the permafrost thaw. That means the slump got five metres closer to the road in just one month, Calmels said.
At this rate, the slump will reach the highway in the next three to four years, he said.
Cyrielle Laurent, a GIS technician at YukonU Research Centre, is part of Calmels’ team of researchers.
Laurent said Yukoners should know that permafrost thaw could have real-life impacts on their day to day lives.
“This road is the only access that we have to Alaska,” she said. “So if it goes down the drain, some people won’t have access to their homes, to Whitehorse, to the hospital.”
How the alarm system works
In order to set up the alarm system, the research team drilled holes into the ground. Then, researchers put in sensors that measure humidity, temperature and other important factors every hour.
That data is stored in an internet gateway, where a computer analyzes the data. If it notices a threat, either an imminent one or one that could come due to an extreme weather event, it will alert the Yukon government.
The alert system at the Takhini Slump is one of the first to be set up in Canada, with a few more sites in operation in northern Quebec. Eventually, the system will also be set up along the Dempster Highway, in both Yukon and the N.W.T.
“This is affecting many sites in northern Canada,” Calmels said. “When you are in very remote areas, you cannot monitor all these sites, so you need to have a system that can record specific data … that can be analyzed remotely.”
Calmels said they haven’t found a solution yet to slow the movement of the Takhini Slump.
The research team has a couple more touches to make on the system before it becomes fully operational, Calmels said, but that should be completed before the end of the year.