The Arctic connection: Travel and climate science converge in Inuvik

Sara Raymond de Booy

2 November 2023

“All the science is there […] how do we get that information back to the people who need it?”

– Alice Wilson, permafrost scientist

What do Mars and the current state of Canada’s Arctic have in common? More than you might expect. In this episode, we sit down with two scientists who approach the climate dilemma in Inuvik from distinct perspectives.

Dr. Adam Hepburn, glaciologist at the European Space Agency

Dr. Adam Hepburn, a glaciologist at the European Space Agency

First, we speak with Dr. Adam Hepburn, a glaciologist and research fellow at the European Space Agency. Dr. Hepburn’s current mission takes him to the Northwest Territories to study landscapes reminiscent of Mars and to uncover the impact of climate change on these regions. During our discussion, he emphasizes the urgency of addressing climate-induced migration and stresses the need for substantial systemic changes, rather than relying solely on technological solutions.

Next, we sit down with Alice Wilson, a permafrost scientist stationed in Inuvik. She expresses concerns surrounding permafrost thaw and its repercussions for the local community, water flows, vegetation, wildlife, and infrastructure. Her research strives to offer the necessary insights to navigate this changing environment. Alice also tells us about the need for effective climate communication to equip the public with scientific knowledge as they adapt their ways of life in the North.

Throughout the episode, you’ll also discover:

  • How a warming climate is affecting Arctic permafrost, endangering homes and infrastructure.
  • The significance of comprehending climate risks and impacts in the Arctic.
  • The evolving discourse on climate change.
  • The existing gaps in effective communication regarding climate issues.
  • How these two scientists contemplate travel and its local and global impacts.



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Show notes

Aurora Research Institute – The Aurora Research Institute, located in Inuvik, Canada, is renowned for its pioneering work in Arctic research, focusing on various aspects of the northern environment, indigenous knowledge, and climate-related studies

European Space Agency – The European Space Agency (ESA) is a prominent international organization dedicated to space exploration and research, conducting missions and studies to advance our understanding of space, Earth, and the cosmos.

Northwest Territories Geological Survey – The Northwest Territories Geological Survey (NTGS), formerly known as the Northwest Territories Geoscience Office (NTGO), is a crucial government-funded research organization under the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, Government of the Northwest Territories, playing a vital role in advancing geoscience knowledge and supporting responsible resource development in the NWT.

Episode transcript

Dr. Adam Hepburn: Climate change, on a certain level, matters because the world we live is not going to be the world our children live in.

Alice Wilson: All the science is there. How do we get that information back to the people who need it? It’s not just academics who need to have that information. It’s the land users, it’s Indigenous organizations, it’s going to be policy

makers. How do we get it into the right hands? 

David Archer: Hello, and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet, surfacing their most inspiring solutions. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from Daajing Giids, British Columbia, a village in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Tyler Robinson: And I’m Tyler Robinson, a climate specialist at Destination Think. I’m recording from Toronto, the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.

On this podcast, we look at the role of travel and choose to highlight destinations that are global leaders.

David Archer: We talk to the change makers who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities, often from the bottom up.

Tyler Robinson: And we’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So be sure to reach out if you have a story to share with us.

David Archer: Well, Inuvik plays host to many visitors, and some of those visitors include climate scientists and other researchers, and that’s who we’re going to hear from today. Last episode, Jackie Challis talked about the aspiration locally of making Inuvik a place of excellence with its blend of traditional Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge through organizations like the local Aurora Research Institute.

And today we’ll speak with two scientists visiting Inuvik to study the environment. Alice Wilson is a permafrost scientist with Northwest Territories Geological Survey, and Dr. Adam Hepburn is a glaciologist with the European Space Agency, and I promise there is a connection to Earth-based destinations.

They’re going to educate us about the natural world and also talk about how they view travel. And Tyler, I’m really glad that we’re able to bring some scientific voices to the show, because it’s just so important to the impact Inuvik is having on the world from its particular vantage point. It’s also important to remember that on some level, scientific knowledge helps to set the stage for all our business decisions, and decisions as a community and in policy. What do you think about overall scientific literacy these days related to sustainability and climate? Has this been a gap that has affected your work with communities or destinations?

Tyler Robinson: Yeah, I’m really glad that we’re able to bring some scientific voices to the show as well, because scientific literacy is incredibly important, and I’ve seen it as a gap in the communities that I’ve worked with. It’s especially important because the climate crisis is such a global challenge, and it requires international cooperation.

It’s one of the main reasons why we’ve struggled to grapple with it so much as a society, as a global society. And scientific literacy promotes that global awareness and understanding that we need to form the foundation for effective collaboration. 

But at the end of the day, data and knowledge can only take us so far. We need to cultivate the values of stewardship and regeneration into our everyday lives. Once the foundation of knowledge is established, it becomes a journey that requires an emotional investment in the planet’s collective well being.

David Archer: Yeah. It’s that conversation of values that keeps coming up, in this podcast, at least. We talked about that a lot in our Aspen season and you know, how these policies and decisions stem from the values of the community, and therefore, yeah, the emotional investment.

How do you think that knowledge of the climate crisis gets transformed into business skills and better decisions in practice?

Tyler Robinson: It’s exciting because, there’s so many opportunities to leverage transferable skills today to support climate action. In fact, we already possess most of the skills needed, so we don’t need to go out and all be climate experts tomorrow, to be effective. We just need to determine how our skill set can support various climate-aligned initiatives and companies.

One example where I’ve seen this play out is an organization called Air Miners, which just started off as a very humble Slack group for carbon removal scientists and entrepreneurs. And over the years has grown into a thriving community that acts as a conduit, connecting people, financing, and other resources to carbon removal startups.

It’s a place where I’ve seen many people go to transition their careers or offer their existing skills to support this specific part of the climate movement. So it’s been really encouraging to see examples like this.

David Archer: Yeah, we need more of these kinds of spaces to participate, where people can plug in. And that is one of the, the reasons we’re doing this Travel Beyond project as well, to try and show destinations the best examples from places and also, you know, share the solutions, share the challenges, so we can learn from one another.

As we’ll hear from our interviewees today, in Inuvik, the permafrost is melting. Do you see this community as a bellwether for the climate crisis generally?

Tyler Robinson: Yeah, the impacts of climate change are definitely not evenly distributed around the world. And unfortunately for Inuvik, the Arctic is experiencing a faster rise in temperatures than many other parts, and experiencing more severe impacts as a result of this. So in many ways, it is a bellwether for the climate crisis.

David Archer: Yeah. It sounds like a bellwether and also an indication of conversations around equity that we’ve been having as well. Um, what’s one important thing that our listeners might need to know about the climate, sustainability, and policy?

Tyler Robinson: Well, speaking of equity, the principle of collective but disproportionate responsibility is really important to hold in our minds as we chart paths forward to address climate change. All people of course, share collective responsibility for addressing the climate crisis and sustainability issues in general, but the burden of that responsibility is not evenly distributed among everyone.

Instead, this principle of collective but disproportionate responsibility encourages us to acknowledge that some entities within the collective bear a greater share of the responsibility based on factors such as historical contributions, capabilities, power, and privilege. And holding this concept close is really the only way to pursue an equitable transition.

David Archer: Yeah, that idea of disproportionate responsibility is an interesting one. I’ve seen this in Haida Gwaii as well and in many other places in Canada, as we talk about Truth and Reconciliation, and kind of grapple with the impacts of colonization, uh, that’s, that’s something that touches travel as well and responsibility. And creating plans for better stewardship seems to require grappling with these things as well. 

It’s all the things that we never thought we would necessarily get into in our careers in tourism. Right? It’s like, tourism and travel are touching so many different aspects of life.

Tyler Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. It’s, it makes our jobs more complex, but ultimately more fulfilling as well, because we can have such a positive impact by thinking intersectionally like this.

David Archer: Yeah. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing from our guests today. Who is up first?

Tyler Robinson: We have Rodney Payne’s conversation with Dr. Adam Hepburn, glaciologist with the European Space Agency.

Adam Hepburn: Yeah, so I’m a, I’m a research fellow at the European Space Agency. I did my PhD on glaciology on Mars. That’s kind of why I’m at the European Space Agency.

But in the last few years, I’ve focused a lot more on process, uh, glaciology on Earth. So I spend a lot of time modeling glacial processes. But also in the field using radar and DMs. So, these digital elevation models, created using drone photogrammetry, to kind of study glacial processes as well. And that’s why I’m here, to kind of, use those methods in a different setting.

Rodney Payne: Glaciology on Mars, that’s fascinating. So what sort of degree leads to that?

Adam Hepburn: Uh, Geography, actually. The process of studying these features on Earth is kind of the same as studying them on Mars. 

Rodney Payne: And what are you here in the Northwest Territories to do?

Adam Hepburn: So that’s actually kind of how it started, was this potential for Canada to kind of serve as an analogue for Mars. So we’ve got this ice that’s buried near the surface, in a much kind of similar way to on Mars. And in Canada also we can go to the ice rather than on Mars, where we can’t quite get there yet.

 And the idea is you study these processes where you can get to and try and extrapolate lessons to elsewhere. But, it being quite a dynamic and changing landscape, the methods we’re hoping to apply are more widely applicable to understanding how climate change is affecting this area as well.

Rodney Payne: And what do you hope to accomplish?

Adam Hepburn: So we’re hoping to expand. A lot of previous work has taken point data. So people have gone to easily accessible sites in the area and done work on that point. But there’s a lack of information going back from that.

So there’s a wide footprint available that hasn’t been fully utilized that we’re hoping to expand the data available, to see how continuous features are in the area.

Rodney Payne: And we’re sitting in Inuvik here and tomorrow, heading to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean at the very north of Canada and you’ve got a bunch of radar equipment with you. What’s happening up in Tuk? 

Adam Hepburn: Tuk is a really interesting place. A lot of northern Canada, it being so high latitude, the underlying terrain is ice rich. So because it’s so cold, water in the subsurface freezes. And that’s why all the buildings are on stilts here, because they need to be off the surface.

But in Tuk, you’ve got the interaction with the coast as well. So you’ve got sea ice, you’ve got wave interaction processes. And it leads to this interaction where the subsurface encompasses, or encounters new terrain that it wouldn’t encounter elsewhere in the world. And it’s that interaction between ocean and ice that’s uniquely interesting about Northern Canada.

And that’s why Tuktoyaktuk is the place we’re going to. 

Rodney Payne: There’s lot of unknowns with a melting Arctic, and melting permafrost. What risks does it pose?

Adam Hepburn: You just have to look around Tuktoyaktuk here and as I said, like those, all those houses are on stilts to isolate them from the underlying surface.

But if you walk around any of these houses, you’ll see cracks in the structure. Like these, the structures are changing and it’s because of the ice underlying. The structure is melting and so in a warming climate, on a very basic level, it’s affecting people’s homes. But then you’ve got an increased risk of flooding. You’ve got all sorts of changes in the landscape, with where people live and how they get to work and transport and their livelihoods. 

Rodney Payne: In the grand scheme of things, how relevant is what’s happening here to the rest of the world?

Adam Hepburn: The relevance of it happening here is you’re seeing it first.

The Arctic and the Antarctic are warming faster than the rest of the world, and because you’ve got this interaction of extreme temperature with the climate, you’re seeing interaction between the two happening much quicker than elsewhere. The relevance of course is that people live here. Regardless of how few people it is compared to elsewhere in the world, people still live here and depend on the landscape intimately for their livelihoods. Much more so than elsewhere. And so climate change is directly impacting people. 

Rodney Payne: So, I’m guessing you feel pretty convinced the climate’s changing. 

Adam Hepburn: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, I think the climate change debate, to my mind, was settled a long time ago. In my lifetime, the change is evident.

You go to any kind of glacier in Europe and it’s retreated faster now in my 20-year lifespan than it has in any decade prior. You just walk around Tuktoyaktuk and the trees are all at funny angles. The roads are all slightly dipping and changing. The climate is warming at a rate that’s beyond anything we’ve seen in, in the records.

Rodney Payne: And there’s been a lot of, in my opinion, quite frivolous debate about whether it’s human caused or not.

Do you feel any doubt?

Adam Hepburn: I feel no doubt, but also, it’s kind of irrelevant. The climate is changing, human-forced or not, it’s something we need to deal with. And if changing our lifestyles alters the climate trajectory, then that’s worthwhile doing.

I think it is human, it is anthropogenic, it is forced by humans, but that kind of debate misses the point, it’s happening, and we need to do something about it.

Rodney Payne: What are the things about a changing climate that matter? Because when I think about climate change and I think about the images in media, you think about the British media portraying people eating ice creams on the beach, and people often think about polar bears, and they think about far off time frames like 2100. Why do you think climate change really matters?

Adam Hepburn: I think climate change on a certain level matters because the world we live is not gonna be the world our children live in. And I think on that level, climate change matters, but on a more kind of now level, vast areas of the world are becoming uninhabitable. With increased warming, the – huge areas of the world are becoming too hot to live in. And that’s the impact. It’s not whether or not the ice creams are becoming more, more available in April in the UK. It’s people’s losing their lives to extreme heat or extreme flooding. It’s extremes that are causing these huge issues.

Rodney Payne: And the geopolitics that from that, with massive migration, right? And resource scarcity.

Adam Hepburn: Yeah, I mean, we’re seeing that in Europe, it’s a huge issue in Europe, is the, people forced to cross the Mediterranean Sea in huge numbers because of, okay, there are wars in Syria and there’s wars in the Middle East, but on a certain level there, the impacts of these are exacerbated by climate.

Rodney Payne: And I, I think we could probably say that about most conflicts in human history is, typically about resources, right? Yeah. And with changing climate, our infrastructure and our resources become more vulnerable, more brittle, and it increases the likelihood of conflict.

Adam Hepburn: Mhmm.

Rodney Payne: Are you worried?

Adam Hepburn: Uh, yes. Absolutely, yeah, of course I’m worried. I almost don’t know what to do with it. It becomes, you can imagine all of these scenarios happening and it becomes kind of a bit overwhelming to think about. 

Rodney Payne: Do you hear that that’s a sentiment shared among other climate scientists who spend a lot of time looking at the data?

Adam Hepburn: You speak to people, and there’s a certain resignation that if you’re intimately familiar with the data, it becomes more worrying. You focus on the thing you can see right in front of you in your spreadsheets, in your data, like in the field. And so yeah, I’d say that’s a sentiment fairly widely shared, is worry. 

There’s a, there’s a vein of optimism, for sure. Some people have the opposite reaction. They see this change and they feel empowered to do something about it, and I think that’s extremely valuable. But, yeah, the overlying feeling is definitely worry.

Rodney Payne: One thing you mentioned to me on the plane was something I’ve been ruminating on a lot is, have we skipped from action to doom too quickly, right? It feels like the narrative has gone from, ” climate change isn’t real” to “climate change isn’t human caused” to, “it’s too late.”

What do you think? 

Adam Hepburn: It does feel like that’s become the narrative is okay, you can see that climate change is happening, and imagine you are the people, you are the national poli, the politician setting the kind of agenda, you can see that’s happening.

Okay. But that’s far too big of an issue for my parliament to deal with. That’s beyond the country level. Because it’s such a large issue, it’s very easy to then say, okay, that’s bigger than me, I can’t do anything about that. 

Rodney Payne: Where do you land on the debate between personal responsibility and systemic change that’s needed?

Adam Hepburn: I think about this quite a lot, actually, and I do think we all bear a personal responsibility for the climate. But at the same time, we do all live in a system that is beyond our own means to change.

 It’s 10 or 100 companies, it’s a very small number of companies that are responsible for like 50 percent of the global emissions. How do you as an individual, switching your lights off in the morning, how do you make a dent in that?

And I do think if everyone were to do that, that would be a sizable dent, but it still pales in comparison to the systematic changes we need to overcome in, say, construction industry, the transport industry the, the bigger things that me recycling isn’t going to change. I do think the systematic responsibility is the bigger issue than the individual responsibility.

Rodney Payne: I too think a lot about that, and I’ve thought about that a lot over the years as well and land on it being negligent leadership, almost, to not think longer term than typical political cycles, but I’ve also felt and seen in my own life when my actions have influenced people around me, and it has a little bit of a ripple effect. 

Adam Hepburn: Absolutely. It has a ripple effect and the actions we take do impact other people. And I do, I’m not saying there isn’t room for that. There’s absolutely room for that and it needs to be done. But if the change isn’t also changing the system in which we live, on that level, like I’m powerless against those choices that are made at a much higher systematic level. Like I, I think that’s part of the reason I worry about it is because it’s not, it’s beyond my personal capability to change.

Rodney Payne: The individual change, we’ve been talking about this for decades, right? Congress in the US knew. 50 years ago.

Adam Hepburn: I mean, ExxonMobil knew. They had people whose entire job it was, was to quantify the mean, like, the change that they were causing. They didn’t do anything with it.

Rodney Payne: And the predictions were unbelievably accurate.

Adam Hepburn: Yeah, they were incredibly accurate. They were more accurate than the scientists were doing at the time. And they’ve later borne out to be incredibly accurate. 

Rodney Payne: I studied environmental law, and I’ve spent most of my career in a completely unrelated field trying to convince people to travel. And moving people and things around is one of the most energy intensive things you can do and the only reliable energy we have to do that at the moment is, highly greenhouse gas emitting. What do you think about travel on a warming planet?

Adam Hepburn: Travel, to a certain degree is a luxury, and I do think like as we were chatting earlier, like travel is going to increasingly become something you need to justify beyond the pure cost. 

Electrical vehicles are being touted as this, like, miracle cure to like, electrify the transport grid, that’s great. But you’re still moving an individual person within a, what, a five ton vehicle. I think, with the transportation, a lot of stuff has been put into these magic silver bullet kind solutions, like an electric car.

But when in reality, we already have pretty decent buses and like mass transportation means that may actually be more effective. I’ve, I’ve lived in places where the public transport isn’t great. I now get very excited when public transport is good. Like it’s, you travel around lots of Northern Europe and it’s, subways are available like every five minutes. They’ve become a meaningful alternative.

Rodney Payne: Do you think we can rely on technology to save us?

Adam Hepburn: I think that kind of speaks to my pessimism is I don’t think there is a technological solution to this.

I think the technology kind of solution, it kind of speaks to an ego that we have the capabilities to overcome this huge, existential issue.

And I don’t think, longer term, I don’t think we do have the means to. You see lots of them touted as the single solution. It’s like carbon capture, for example. It’s been promised like nuclear fission. It’s been promised my entire life and it’s never got any, it doesn’t feel like it’s gotten any closer.

And yeah you hit this Holy Grail and it does work and it does overnight change a lot of things, but it still doesn’t alter the fundamentals. It still doesn’t alter the systematic issues at hand. 

Rodney Payne: It’s a bad, gamble, right? Because we, one of the, one of the things I think a lot about is, civilization’s become so complex. We’re all in our own silos, right? I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours. And you don’t really know what’s going on in other silos. But, it’s not really a good bet, given what’s at stake.

Adam Hepburn: No, and I think betting on technology passes the buck a little bit. It almost excuses the changes, the much easier changes that need to be made in terms of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. We know the solution. It’s stopping them.

Technological changes are all focused on mitigating the impacts rather than dealing with the actual causes. The solution, if there is one, is a kind of global change. It’s not any one government doing one thing within their own domestic borders. It’s an international solution of which the like we’ve never seen before.

Rodney Payne: It’s a massive mobilization that’s more effective than the way we handled the pandemic.

Adam Hepburn: Yeah, I mean, the pandemic started relatively positively. Nations took coordinated actions, questionably coordinated actions, but they were coordinated.

And then it quickly became a case of every man for himself. 

Rodney Payne: We need an enormous cultural maturing, right? It’s like we need to wean ourselves off the yoke and go out and forage and grow up. 

We’ve probably interviewed 50 or a hundred people in different parts of the world as part of this project, and I’ll often ask people, ’cause it’s quite a heavy topic, I ask, what brings you joy? And it’s amazing how similar the answers are and how simple things are, right?

It’s simple, like my family, spending time with friends, going for a walk, right? And that’s really at the heart of the behavior change we need to make is, stop chasing and running on the hamster wheel as fast as we possibly can to consume the next thing we’re told that we need to be happy and just look right in front of us, right?

Adam Hepburn: Yeah I love my work. I love my hobbies. I ride my bike. I enjoy spending money on things like that, but at the end of the day, give me a choice between spending an afternoon with my partner or buying a new bike, I’m picking the afternoon with my partner.

Rodney Payne: Because I still fly for work, I’ve really changed the amount that I travel. I have sort of a filter and criteria that I use to decide whether I’m going to get on a plane or not. But I flew to Sofia in Bulgaria to speak at a tourism conference recently and I sort of, running the the calculation on is this really going to have any impact? Is it really worth it? And, you know, it’s three and a half tons of CO2e to go there, plus forcing whatever multiplier you, you apportion to it. And, that flight is actually melting cubic meters of sea ice, right? It’s really, really hard to live in the dichotomy of… 


Adam Hepburn: And I think that’s, again, part of the system in which we live.

Certainly for my work, I do have to travel. And it’s, as we were speaking earlier about conferences, 15,000 people get together from all over the world to discuss science for a week.

When you multiply the 15 tons by 15,000 people, it’s very hard to imagine that’s negated by the work done. Like, do the maths on that. It’s, how do you do it? You can’t, and because it’s quite hard to do, it’s, it becomes much easier to almost ignore, I think. But yeah, I travel to see my partner. We live in different countries. I do have to weigh, it doesn’t feel good. But I do also have to see my partner. So I think that’s part of the issue with the individual choice is that we end up feeling so guilty about our own actions that it becomes almost unproductive.

Rodney Payne: Knowing everything you know, if I gave you a magic wand and a blank checkbook, and made you in charge of the world for a day, what would you do?

Adam Hepburn: Make everyone ride a bike. Only a bike. They can only get to work by a bike. And that’s maybe not the most ambitious solution, but I do think it would make everyone a little bit happier. And a small part to reducing our consumption a little bit. 

Rodney Payne: That’s awesome, I really appreciate you sitting down to talk, I know you’re very tired after a long trip, and you’ve got a lot of work to do while you’re here, so thank you.

Adam Hepburn: No worries, thanks very much for having me. 

David Archer: That was Dr. Adam Hepburn from the European Space Agency, and next we’ll hear Rodney’s conversation with Alice Wilson, permafrost scientist with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey.

Alice Wilson: I’m Alice Wilson, and I’m a permafrost scientist for the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, and I’m based here in inuvik.

Rodney Payne: And can you tell me where we’re sitting?

Alice Wilson: We’re sitting in a garden outside the Aurora Research Institute. 

I am the only one from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey in Inuvik, so I partner and collaborate with a lot of people from the Aurora Research Institute, so they allow me to be based out of this building here that supports other researchers like me.

Rodney Payne: And the Institute’s a really great opportunity for people coming up here visiting. It’s sort of a draw for scientists who have research to do.

Alice Wilson: Yeah, it helps support researchers by providing logistical support if they need it, by equipment. Really knowledgeable technicians from the area to go out with them, as well as accommodation for them to stay at longer term. And lab space. 

Rodney Payne: You’ve been up in Inuvik for five years. What do you love about it here?

Alice Wilson: From my job perspective, I study permafrost, and this is kind of a hot spot for permafrost and how we’re seeing it change. So I get to be close to what I’m researching, which is really nice.

But personally, I love the community. It’s really welcoming. There’s plenty of things to do, even though people might from outside see it as a small town in the middle of nowhere, but we’re still connected by a road. We still have access to all of the foods. We have a complex. We have everything we need, but without all of the stresses of a big city, like commuting or not really knowing your neighbors or feeling a community. We have all of that here.

Rodney Payne: What’s your background? What did you study?

Alice Wilson: I have a Masters of Science in Geography, and I specialised in permafrost, so I’m very lucky to be able to work in what I studied in my field.

Rodney Payne: And what’s permafrost?

Alice Wilson: Permafrost is simply defined as ground that is at or below zero for two or more years. So it’s purely a thermal definition. So the ground can consist of anything from just bedrock to soil, ice, organic material, and as long as it’s below zero for two, at least two years, that is permafrost.

Rodney Payne: So for people who’ve never been to somewhere this far north and only know ground that is unfrozen and organic, what’s permafrost like to look at? Can you notice it?

Alice Wilson: Honestly, because it’s in the ground, to people who aren’t aware of it existing, it might not seem noticeable to you, but once you learn about it, it becomes much more evident, the way that it shapes and affects the lives up here, because, based on the fact that permafrost allows ice to be formed in it, a lot of, for example, key attractions such as the pingos at Tuk, those are a permafrost landform. And without permafrost, those pingos wouldn’t exist.

As well as any issues we have where, with permafrost thawing, we have ice melting, and as it leaves, it doesn’t refreeze because it turns into water and flows away, our ground can subside and buckle differently, and that affects some of the roads and how they have to be maintained.

Rodney Payne: How is changing permafrost affecting people’s lives here?

Alice Wilson: Permafrost essentially is the glue that holds a lot of the environment together, because if you think about it, it’s what the entire environment is based on top of. It affects how our water flows and moves. It affects where vegetation is, because where you have thicker active layers – and the active layer is defined as the area above permafrost that freezes and thaws every year. So in the summers, you’re gonna have some top-down thaw, and that’s the active layer, and that’s where a lot of roots and trees grow. So where you thicker active layers, you’re gonna have bigger trees, and where you have thinner, more towards north of tree line, you’ll see there’s no trees, smaller bushes. So it affects vegetation, which affects where wildlife are going to be. 

And for people, if you looked around town, none of the buildings are built on the ground, because you don’t want heat from the buildings going into the ground. So they’re all raised above so cold air can keep the ground cool throughout the winter. But as we’re seeing changes, ways that things were built and that would work several decades ago, with the changing climate, there has to be some adaptation to allow for infrastructure and the way people use the land to be maintained.

Rodney Payne: What do you hope to accomplish through your research?

Alice Wilson: Through studying permafrost, I hope to have a better understanding of how permafrost can respond to changes that we’re seeing or predicted changes as well, because where we are is one of the most rapidly warming regions in Canada, if not the world. 

And because permafrost is thermal, we know that there is going to be thaw.

And what does that mean for everything else I mentioned about the importance? Wildlife, vegetation, water, people.

Ideally it’d be nice to find some solutions. But unfortunately, because it’s related to climate often, it’s a global issue that’s having local impacts. So the best we can do is try to understand it the best we can, see if we can come up with some local solutions to ensure that people can continue to live here, stay on the land, have good quality of life, while understanding what adaptations might be needed to done in the future.

Rodney Payne: What would happen if there were, if it wasn’t easy for people like yourself and other researchers to come here, or if there were no visitors and easy access to Inuvik? What would the place be like without visitors?

Alice Wilson: Without research, there would be less information about what’s happening with the environment, and I think less knowledge by local people and the people from here about the changes that are happening, because we run workshops with people and work with, for example, the Inuvialuit Land Administration, and now they have monitors who can look at the land from the lens of permafrost, or they work with other researchers and can understand these changes and be more informed about the changes they’re seeing and how that relates to research and science.

But on the other hand, if there weren’t as many visitors, there would be less stress on infrastructure. 

Rodney Payne: You spend so much time thinking about permafrost and the impacts of it locally and globally. Are you worried?

Alice Wilson: Yes, but I don’t to be a doomsday person, because I think there can be an attitude where people think about everything that’s going wrong and can spiral into those negative thoughts about the environment. 

The climate is changing. We are warming. We are seeing changes, but there are a lot of people who are very aware of the environment and taking care of it and stewards in this region. And I think we can’t have too much dread about it when some of this is out of our control. The best we can do is try to understand it and try to adapt. 

And one thing to keep in mind is that this area used to be glaciated thousands of years ago. And so we’ve essentially been in a state of deglaciation since that time. It has been more rapid recently, but it’s not something that has never happened before. This environment hasn’t been stable for thousands of years. It’s always been changing. And so we’re just going to have to change with it.

Rodney Payne: I really like that perspective. We obviously have really sped up the last little bit, and we’re at the crunchy point where it’s deglaciated to the point where organic matter is creating carbon and methane emissions. Is anyone working on radical out of the box solutions to try and contain those emissions?

Alice Wilson: Not that I know of. Permafrost regions are large. If you look at a map, it’s a large area, and it’s not like you can just put a blanket on top of all of the North and keep everything inside. So we’re going have to just have global solutions for reducing global temperatures. And then, for here, where we just need maintain some structures and infrastructure, we’re going to have to have some local solutions. And I think that’s the best we can do for now. 

When we talk about permafrost thaw, it’s being used as a, essentially a blanket term to understand, yeah, the North is changing. But the way each of the northern communities are going to react to climate change is going to be a little bit different, and the risks for each of the communities are going a bit different.

So for instance, higher risks for the community of Aklavik have been flooding. So they’re more concerned with floods than permafrost thaw, while Tuk is concerned about coastal erosion, and they’re starting to move the community more inland, so that as erosion continues, they have more time and can be moved elsewhere.

Rodney Payne: You mentioned doomism. One thing I’ve really noticed is the discourse evolving about climate, and we’ve gone through so many different phases, including, climate change isn’t real, or climate change isn’t man made, and it feels like in some areas we’re skipping the, we need to act urgently on adaptation and mitigation, and jumping all the way to doomism, like you mentioned, and nothing can be done.

Are you, do you feel the same way, that we’re missing the important part?

Alice Wilson: I think it’s difficult because everyone is at a different stage. There are still some people who don’t believe it. I think we can’t change their opinions based on all of the information that’s out there to prove otherwise. But I do notice that there’s a lot of people in town and people I work with who are really concerned and worried, and rightly so.

But if we’re just so stuck in how potentially badly things can go, I think we might not have the energy or time to think about potential solutions, even if they’re short term, and then work towards larger ones.

Rodney Payne: Yeah, I agree. Do you think more facts and more information and more research is the key to the type of action you’re talking about?

Alice Wilson: Yes, but I think the main one’s communication. Because there’s a lot of research that’s being done, and there’s a lot of information out there, but sometimes it’s not reaching the right audiences.

For instance, in the academic world, people are doing peer reviewed articles. It’s great, all science is there. But then communicating that back, and this is something that we’ve heard time and time again in the North, and I’m sure it’s across all scientific and all academia, is that, how do we get that information back to the people who need it?

So for instance, I do research in the Western Arctic. How, how do I get that back to community members? It’s not going to be through peer reviewed articles. It’s not going to be through some conference presentations.

So how do you get the information by either having easy-to-understand resources or going to the proper community meetings? Because I think it’s not just academics who need to have that information. It’s the land users, it’s Indigenous organizations, it’s going to be policy makers. And I think it’s not that there’s not the information, it’s just how do we get it into the right hands?

Rodney Payne: And if you had the magic ability to implant information in people, whether it’s people here or policy makers or people around the world, based on everything you know and everything you’ve seen, what would you love them to know?

Alice Wilson: That’s a tough one. I’ve thought of that before. It’s, I would just like people to understand that when people think of the arctic and the North and its climate issues, sometimes they think, oh, that’s unfortunate for them. Yeah, I see that’s problem. But they don’t realize that their actions are part of the reason we’re having these issues here. And because, like I said before, it’s global actions that are having some of these local impacts, it’s not like the community of Inuvik can solve the climate change or permafrost issues. 

I think if everyone could understand how everything was more intricately linked, that’d be great. But it’s such a complicated issue that trying to get everyone to understand it is going to be difficult. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, especially when you think about the potential magnitude of the impact of melting permafrost. It’s a global phenomenon that’s impacting here, but in turn it’s so interconnected that’s going to impact the rest of the world.

Alice Wilson: Yeah, because we’re going to be emitting more greenhouse gases as permafrost thaws, but people aren’t going to see that firsthand impacting their lives.

Meanwhile here, people can see how the land is changing, so it’d be nice to have people be able to see it and understand it, and understand how it could be applied to their lives, but I can’t bring everyone from the world to Inuvik to show them.

Rodney Payne: Who are the people you think we could bring here that could have the most impact to show them?

Alice Wilson: That, I honestly don’t know. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah. 

Alice Wilson: Because it would have to be people who are actually going to take action on what they see. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah.

I really, really appreciate you taking time away from the Institute today to come talk to us. And I’m excited to go explore, and we’re driving up to Tuk today. 

Alice Wilson: Oh, that’ll be a good drive. Yeah.

Rodney Payne: Yeah. Yeah. So thank you. And uh, it was great to meet you. 

Alice Wilson: Yeah, nice to meet you too. 

Rodney Payne: Cheers. 

David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond, presented by Destination Think. And you just heard from Dr. Adam Hepburn, a research fellow at the European Space Agency, and Alice Wilson, permafrost scientist with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey. We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at 

My co-host is Tyler Robinson, and my co-producer is Sara Raymond de Booy. This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. 

We would like to thank the Town of Inuvik for sponsoring this season, and we’re grateful to the many community members, including Indigenous leaders, who shared their time and stories with us. You can help more people find the show by subscribing and by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Next time, we’ll speak with two residents who are making innovations in agriculture and sustainability. We’ll see you then. 


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