How does permafrost thaw’s impact compare in Siberia and the NWT?

Last modified: October 25, 2022 at 9:34am


Anthropologist Susan Crate is undertaking research in the Northwest Territories’ Beaufort Delta to understand residents’ perceptions of permafrost thaw.

She wants to compare their experiences with those of Indigenous communities in Siberia.  

Crate, professor emeritus of anthropology at George Mason University in the United States, has worked with communities in Siberia for more than three decades. About 15 years ago, she started studying Sakha people’s understanding of climate change. The Sakha breed horses and cattle in the Sakha Republic, an area about twice the size of Alaska in northeastern Russia. They have inhabited the area since before colonization.

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Crate’s work with Sakha communities has highlighted how much is at stake as permafrost thaws in the Sakha Republic.

For at least half a millennium, Sakha have used alaas – an ecosystem characterized by circular lakes surrounded by hay fields and underlain by ice-rich permafrost – to feed their horses and cattle. Alaas is not only important to Sakha’s way of life, it also plays a critical role in their cultural identity and spirituality.

As alaas are threatened by climate change, so is Sakha’s use of them. For example, freeze-thaw cycles in the fall have become increasingly common, which creates an ice crust that horses struggle to dig through to feed on hay, Crate said. As a result, breeders are having to give their horses a lot of supplemental hay. What used to be a free service from the environment is now costing money, she said.

Thawing permafrost degrades a former agricultural field in the Sakha Republic. Alexander Fedorov/Melnikov Permafrost Institute

Crate wrote about her work with the Sakha in a book published last year (an open-access version can be found here). Now, she is working to compare what she has learned to another part of the world undergoing similar change. Like Siberia, parts of the NWT are underlain with ice-rich permafrost.

Last month, Crate started a six-week research stint in the NWT to interview residents and knowledge holders about their perceptions of permafrost thaw. The research is funded by the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, a program that brings together researchers who work in northern regions. Crate is also collaborating with an international permafrost research project, Nunataryuk, which has provided logistical support.

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The work aims to highlight Indigenous knowledge of change as well as local research and adaptation initiatives.

“There’s a lot of interest in, and rightly so, bringing together Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge,” Crate said.

‘No one’s going anywhere’

Bringing these knowledge systems together is not so much about a specific output or deliverable, as the scientific world might expect. Rather, it’s about a collaborative process that can lead to deeper understanding and inform policy.

“It’s more about giving agency to people who have mostly not ever had agency in the world of policy and science,” Crate said.

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In her interviews with knowledge holders, Crate isn’t only asking about permafrost thaw. She is also asking about communities’ histories and other changes they’ve been through. Climate change and permafrost thaw haven’t occurred within a static context, she points out.

Crate has already visited Aklavik and, over the course of her stay, hopes to go to Tuktoyaktuk and Fort MacPherson.

Although her research is still in progress, it’s clear that things are changing relatively quickly, she said.

“Several people mentioned that this time of year, they’d be out ice fishing,” she said. “Lakes and rivers haven’t even frozen up yet.” People have also told her about changes in the wind and in river channels they navigate.

Although politics, government structures and Indigenous rights are drastically different in Canada compared with Russia, Crate notes that communities in the two regions share something in common.

“No one’s going anywhere,” she said. People talk about the changes they’re seeing, but they also talk about how they’re adapting like they always have.

Crate will give a research talk in Inuvik on Thursday, October 27. She plans to speak about her work in Siberia, provide first impressions based on her research in Canada, and ask the audience about their perceptions of permafrost thaw.

More information about the event can be found online.


This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.