Permafrost climate change observation system with local and Arctic importance

Permafrost climate change observation system with local and Arctic importance

Top image: A large debris flow occured close to the cemetery in Longyearbyen on 15 October 2016. Professor Hanne Christiansen pictured to the left. Photo: Ole Humlum/UNIS. 

A new UNIS strategical project will develop knowledge on the impacts of permafrost degradation, due to climate change, on nature and society in the Arctic using Longyearbyen as the key study site. The observing system will help both local authorities in Svalbard in planning but will also be a tool for other Arctic settlements in local decision making. 

18 December 2020
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen

The UNIS Board has approved a new strategic pilot project for NOK 13 million over the next three years, which involves three out of four scientific departments at UNIS.

The project is called “Developing a permafrost and meteorological climate change response system to build resilience in Arctic communities (PermaMeteoCommunity)”.

The interdisciplinary geoscientific UNIS project is led by Professor Hanne Christiansen in the Arctic geology department. Together with her are associate professor Marius Jonassen in the Arctic geophysics department, associate professor Aleksey Shestov and adjunct professor Arne Instanes in the Arctic Technology department, and adjunct associate professor Graham Gilbert. Longyearbyen Lokalstyre and Telenor are key local partners in this project.

The project is addressing challenges that are of great importance locally and globally. The ongoing climate change resulting in a warmer Arctic is also speeding up the thawing of permafrost. This has resulted in increasing active-layer thickness and the melting of buried ground ice which, combined with saline soils, represents a high risk for geohazards and will affect infrastructure practices including those for buildings as well as emergency response planning and community planning.

The project combines permafrost research and engineering application, and modelling and field observations to create new knowledge and innovation. The climate response system will provide guidance for local authorities in planning and making decisions related to permafrost changes. The model will have transfer value to other Arctic settlements and can act as a standard for local and regional decision making on short and long-term scales.

“Longyearbyen is an excellent test site for developing such forward-looking technology to provide safer and better living conditions for the inhabitants”, explains Professor Christiansen.

The developed response system shall be exportable to other polar or cold climatic areas, with permafrost or seasonal frost, which are most affected by climate change. This way Longyearbyen will be a showcase for how to handle climate change and build resilience in Arctic communities, according to Christiansen.

The project will investigate permafrost in the different landforms that the Longyearbyen area is built upon by 1) using different geophysical and geotechnical measurements and 2) performing permafrost drillings collecting cores from the active layer and permafrost analysing the ground ice content and type, thermal properties, age and grain-size.

“The measurements and interpretations will enable us to select the most critical sites in the landscape, in the near vicinity of vital infrastructure above and below buildings, roads and installations to be equipped with observation instrumentation for observing in real-time changes affecting slope and building stability”, Christiansen says.

Educating new Arctic experts
The system will be highly beneficial for use in research, for education, and in outreach as well as for long-term societal infrastructure and   area planning.

“We aim to train the next generation of Arctic experts within all parts of the planned activities. UNIS students will be involved in the project by doing part of their course activities or full-scale bachelor, master or PhD thesis studies within the project. This project will enhance the amount of directly useful data and real-work life experiences that students can collect and analyse as part of their UNIS education”, says Christiansen.

The project also has participation from research institutions such as the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate and The Norwegian Meteorological Institute. And there is internationally university collaboration through the FROZEN CANOES INTPART project, which Professor Christiansen lead together with NTNU and Carleton, Laval and Yukon universities in Canada.

The real-time, online observation system receiving weather and permafrost key parameters and will be based in the Arctic Safety Centre at UNIS, with direct data output to the local authorities and will be an important outcome for the local community.

From left Marius Jonassen, Aleksey Shestov and Hanne Christiansen at UNIS.

The “Developing a permafrost and meteorological climate change response system to build resilience in Arctic communities (PermaMeteoCommunity)” project at UNIS is led by Professor Hanne Christiansen (right) together with associate professors Marius Jonassen (left) and Aleksey Shestov. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

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