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The impacts of permafrost degradation on peatland biota and transport infrastructure in the central northwest territories, Canada

The impacts of permafrost degradation on peatland biota and transport infrastructure in the central northwest territories, Canada


Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

Rationale and Aims: High-latitude regions have experienced rapid warming in recent decades, which has stimulated dramatic changes in the physical and ecological systems of arctic and boreal regions.  Recent evidence suggests that permafrost has thawed in many areas in response to surface warming, causing significant local damage to transport and other infrastructure.  This project aims to develop novel, integrated methodologies to examine the character, timing and impacts of permafrost degradation in the Canadian subarctic (central Northwest Territories) over the last few hundred years, through the combined analysis of fossil remains of plants and other hydrologically sensitive micro-organisms preserved in sediment cores, and geotechnical, hydro-geological and geophysical analysis of sediments and the underlying geological substrata.  A subsidiary stand of the project will assess the vulnerability of regional road networks to future permafrost collapse via GIS.

Methods: The project will focus on dated sediments cores from the Great Slave region of the central Northwest Territories, including sites that lie within the zone of continuous permafrost, sites in the zone of discontinuous permafrost and controls. The sampling set will further include sites located along a major regional highway that has been impacted by permafrost collapse in the last 15-20 yrs.  Biological proxy analysis will consider evidence for successional changes that attest to permafrost collapse (e.g., changes in Sphagnum community structure), whilst geophysical approaches will explore the changing hydrology and surface elevational changes to the peatlands associated with ice-collapse.  State-of-the-art age-modelling and radiometric dating techniques will be applied to the cores.

Interdisciplinarity: the project will be strongly interdisciplinary in focus, integrating techniques from palaeoecology, soil ecology, geophysics as well as GIS, and will be carried out in close liaison with the Canadian Geological Survey and other regional stakeholders.

Key words/descriptors

permafrost degradation, climate warming impacts, boreal ecosystems, biodiversity change, transport infrastructure

First supervisor

Dr Helen Roe - School of Natural and Built Environment

Secondary supervisor from a complementary discipline

Dr Tancredi Caruso - School of Biological Sciences

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

Dr Helen Roe, School of Natural and Built Environment

19 PhD supervisions (10 to completion); 12 as primary supervisor (8 to completion); 7 as co-supervisor (6 to completion);

> 60 international journal articles on the use of palaeoecological techniques for climate change and environmental reconstruction.

15 years’ experience of working with biological proxies in peatlands. Co-leader of field expeditions in subarctic Canada in 2012-3 (lake coring, helicopter surveys, peatland sampling);

Adjunct Research Professor, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada since 2003;   Member NERC Radiocarbon Steering Committee since 2012;

Director of Research, Environmental Change Research Cluster, School of GAP (2014-2016);

External Grant Reviewer NSERC Canada & NSF, USA;

Eaton Fellow, University of New Brunswick (aquatic ecosystem responses to environmental change) 2014-2015;

Fellow, Royal Society of Biology.

Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

The student will work with a large, interdisciplinary team of scientists undertaking Holocene palaeoclimate research in NW Canada, including: geologists and geochemists from the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC - Primary Partner Agency) (principal contacts: Dr Stephen Wolfe), palaeoecologists and environmental scientists from Carleton University, Ottawa (principal contact: Professor Tim Patterson) as well as other Canadian and UK partners, incl. Leeds University.  The student will collect field samples in sub-arctic Canada, receive laboratory training (microfossil analysis, geochemistry) in Ottawa during an extended visit of 3 months in Year 1 of the project. 

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

Project partner Wolfe (GSC) is an authority on ground ice and permafrost in the discontinuous-to-continuous permafrost zone within the Canadian sub-arctic and on detecting present and future risks to infrastructure due to climate change. He is the author of >50 articles on the topic of climate change impacts on geomorphic processes in Canada.  Project Partner and external supervisor Patterson is a micropalaentologist and author of >150 research articles, including studies of long-term climate change in the subarctic.  He was a recent PI on a large, interdisciplinary, NSERC-Canada-funded project on climate change impacts on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, central NWT, Canada.  External partner Galloway (GSC Calgary, is Co-PI on a Canadian Federal Government funded project - 'Environmental Risk Assessment of Anthropogenic Activities in Arctic Canada'.

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

Field sampling in permafrost environments with specialist coring equipment;

Plant macrofossil and microfossil (e.g. testate amoebae) identification;

Scanning Electron Microscopy analysis of microfossils;

Statistical analysis of biological and environmental data;

Sediment and geochemical analysis;

Niche modelling in boreal soils.

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

Project management, including organisation of field sampling in remote locations

Oral presentations;

Organising workshops & public dissemination event;

Data-handling & spatial data analysis using R and GIS software.

Expected dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

3 papers in international peer-reviewed journals; conference presentations (including two at international meetings, e.g. the 'Polar Climate and Environmental Change during the last Millennium' and the 'Annual Geosciences Forum of the Northwest Territories').  The student will also be encouraged to present work at relevant European meetings, e.g. European Geosciences Union, British Ecological Society and NI and RoI based meetings.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Oral presentations to stakeholder groups and environmental agencies in NW Canada, including special session at the 'Geosciences Forum, NWT', attendance at relevant QUB events, including School-led workshops, open-days and QUB impact events.