Less than a year after Northwest Territories research station Scotty Creek sustained major damage from a wildfire, the facility has been almost entirely rebuilt.
Located 50 km south of Fort Simpson, Scotty Creek is one of the first Indigenous-led research stations in the world. It’s also one of the few long-term research stations in the North.
Organizations from around the world, including the IPCC, use data collected at the site to try to understand the progress of climate change in one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth.
The lease transfer that moved ownership of the research station to Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation was formalized in August 2022. In the weeks that followed, as the First Nation begin developing a management plan and approving research licenses, a wildfire reach the station on October 18, 2022, causing significant damage.
An ambitious plan to rebuild the facility began almost immediately after the disaster occurred.
The following Monday, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Kele Antoine, Scotty Creek director Bill Quinton, and Dieter Cazon, who acts as the First Nation’s executive director and manager of Lands and Resources, gathered to discuss the research station’s future.
Earlier in September, Quinton told Cabin Radio that millions of dollars of equipment, infrastructure and research investments would go up in smoke if the fire reached Scotty Creek. But in that Monday’s discussion, Cazon said, they tried not to dwell on all that was lost.
People went in, he said, “with the attitude of, hey, what do we need to do to get this thing fixed?”
Cazon added: “One of the things we’re taught when we’re really young is to take care of the land and the land will take care of you. Now that we own Scotty Creek, it’s our responsibility to take care of it so that the research can continue moving forward.”
According to Quinton, insurance covered the replacement of research infrastructure but not the camp itself. So the First Nation started a GoFundMe and began approaching other organizations who might be interested in funding their efforts.
It didn’t take long to find interested parties; the fate of Scotty Creek has been followed internationally. German illustrator Dominik Heilig announced plans to create a graphic novel about the fire and the return of Scotty Creek earlier this year.
In the United States, a coalition of research institutions took particular interest in developments at Scotty Creek.
Led by the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, the group had already formed a Permafrost Pathways project in 2021, which aims to improve permafrost monitoring across the Arctic. In 2022, the group received $41 million from donors such as TED and billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott to finance the project.
For researchers at Woodwell, data collected at Scotty Creek was invaluable to that project’s mission – and remains important even post-wildfire.
“It’s very unique and essentially unheard-of to have a decade of data that predated a wildfire,” said Kyle Arndt, a climate scientist who works with Woodwell, in an interview posted to the institution’s website, “and then be able to rebuild in the exact same location and make a direct post-fire comparison.”
There is still a loss to the science community – the wildfire irrevocably interrupted decades of continuous permafrost data collection – but new opportunities have presented themselves.
What was once a camp where researchers looked to understand ambient discontinuous permafrost over time has become a rare case study on post-fire boreal conditions.
And as Canada continues its terrible and record-breaking 2023 wildfire season, the researchers, along with the First Nation, are aware this data is only becoming more relevant.
“Without a doubt, this does provide some opportunity to understand fire behaviour, fire impacts,” Quinton told CKLB soon after the fire.
“Here we have close to 25 years of extensive landscape and hydrological monitoring, in advance of any sort of attempt to examine the impacts of the fire. So to that extent, researchers have been contacting me and saying, ‘Wow, the scientific opportunities are immense here.’”
Military-style vehicles, old military roads
By February, Woodwell had become one of the most significant contributors to the reconstruction efforts, along with IVADO and AmeriFlux. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and the GNWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment have also contributed.
New gear was ordered. Plans were drawn up.
In March, Arndt was part of a research team from Woodwell who travelled to Scotty Creek to help restore a critical piece of research infrastructure: an eddy covariance tower. The tower is one of two that collects data at the site. Both pieces of research infrastructure have been owned and operated by Oliver Sonnentag with the Université de Montréal since he installed them in 2013.
Sonnentag said he connected LKFN with partners willing to provide funding and logistical support to restore the damaged tower.
“Eddy covariance towers monitor micro-changes in the atmosphere and use that to gauge some of the effects of climate change and some of the changes that we’re seeing,” said Cazon. “After it burned, chief and council felt it was a piece of infrastructure that should be rebuilt right away.”
“To help reassemble the tower site was an exciting opportunity for Permafrost Pathways to continue supporting LKFN and the Scotty Creek Research Station,” said Arndt as part of the same interview with Woodwell. “From a scientific standpoint, getting that tower site up and running again will ultimately yield really interesting data.”
Cazon credits Nogha Enterprises, the economic development arm of Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation, with helping the First Nation to act nimbly and efficiently in the face of a complex logistical effort.
“Nogha freed us from having to look for contractors, because it’s our company,” said Cazon.
Choosing Nogha to play a key role in the reconstruction effort also had a deeper significance for Cazon and the First Nation.
“Generations before us had the foresight to create this business arm, to help us make money and employ our people. It felt like everything came together from within the community to get this done,” he said.
Still, restoring the research station – a remote facility only accessible by land in winter – was an undertaking, even for those who are experienced with building in the North.
“It was fortunate that we have a Hägglund, which is a military-style vehicle out of Sweden that has a main carrier on the back that you can take off and put on a flat deck, which is a lot more cost-effective than flying materials in,” said Scott Gordon, chief operating officer for Nogha.
The Hägglund meant Gordon and his crew could start early, moving new equipment on-site and removing debris.
“We accessed the area using World War Two military roads,” said Gordon. “There’s a road that runs from there all the way to the Arctic.”
Gordon explained that roads built through muskeg tend to last much longer and are less likely to become overgrown, although parts of the route did present challenges.
Muskeg bogs can appear deceptively easy to traverse, but beyond the surface vegetation, the water beneath can reach depths of up to 30 metres.
“If you actually were on it with a vehicle that wasn’t amphibious and you broke through, you’d be hooped,” said Gordon. Luckily, the Hägglund is just such a vehicle.
How does one build in such conditions?
“In muskeg, there’s always islands, so those bits are like regular ground,” said Gordon.
Throughout June, construction crews and members of the First Nation, along with researchers and students, have worked hard to make the site fully operational by summer’s end.
While it would be tempting for the First Nation to make the build its own this time around, Cazon explained that due to the requirements of the area’s water licence, the ecological integrity of the area had to be fully maintained. There was also the need to ensure similar research conditions. As a result, the new version of Scotty Creek will be quite similar to the old one.
“We can’t have a place to build a big fire or anything, because even a campfire can skew readings on the eddy covariance tower,” said Cazon. “The minutiae of how the data is collected is so touchy that something as simple as that can throw off your readings.”
The First Nation is, however, hoping to install a garden – small improvements.
Gordon explained that changes to the original construction aren’t necessary to protect the site from future wildfires, either.
“All the fire-smarting has been done by nature because all the standing timber in the immediate area is gone, right? Except for on the island, there’s still some, but it’s a fairly large spatial area around [the station] now, so the likelihood of it burning again would be a long ways down the road.”
Gordon, for his part, says he’s proud of his role at Scotty Creek.
“It’s so impressive that it’s been around since the 1990s. It’s a busy place. It’s so good to see it fired back up again and providing good scientific data and knowledge.”
What does the future look like?
The students that arrived earlier this summer are helping with rebuilding efforts but also working at the LKFN office in Fort Simpson on a variety of projects related to natural resources and climate change.
One of these projects will be a more accurate map of Fort Simpson and surrounding areas to assist the RCMP and emergency services with navigation.
They’re also beginning their own research projects. One student is engaged in water cycle work. Another is compiling historical fire data and satellite images into a library for the First Nation. Another is looking at conditions that may lead to landslides in the Mackenzie Valley.
All of these studies will contribute to the Dehcho Collaborative on Permafrost, a project that hopes to explain how thawing permafrost is changing the Dehcho.
Cazon said this work has already been meaningful and collaborative.
“Guardians from Pehdzeh Ki, Jean Marie River, Nahanni Butte, Kakisa, Fort Providence will start gathering this information and start sharing the changes and strategies we’re using to engage on these issues,” said Cazon.
When asked about how the First Nation has been able to make such significant progress in restoring Scotty Creek in just nine months, Cazon said the work being done at the research station is deeply connected to the First Nation’s core values.
“It speaks to the tenacity and the conviction of LKFN and the work we’re trying to do in regards to climate change,” he said.
That work means more communication about scientific research, more data sharing, and more tangible action.
“It may seem like climate change is a big unstoppable beast right now, with everything that’s in the news – the forest fires, the issues, the concerns, the pictures we’re seeing of orange and smoky skies,” said Cazon.
“Don’t sink into doom and gloom about it. If everyone does a little bit, it will be a lot easier to tackle. Everybody pulling a little bit – that what it’s going to take to effect change.”
“It’ll be a beautiful camp before, it’ll be a beautiful camp again,” said Quinton this week.
“It’ll be built on the ashes of the former camp and if you dig down, we can’t help noticing, just a few centimetres below the soil you’ll see another thick ash layer.
“Clearly, the site has burned before. The Elders tell us in the 1920s there was a big fire there. People here talk about fire being renewal, and I think that transcends down to the station.”
Correction: July 4, 2023 – 11:06 MT. This article has been amended to include the contributions of Oliver Sonnentag and the Université de Montréal, along with several additional funding partners.