Queen's researcher secures global scholarship


Queen's researcher secures global scholarship

Élise Devoie has been named a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar. 

By Catarina Chagas

May 23, 2023


Today, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) announced support for 16 distinguished early-career researchers worldwide, who, through a competitive process, have been named to the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program. Queen’s researcher Élise Devoie, an expert in permafrost loss and its impact on ecosystems and Indigenous communities, will be welcomed as part of the program’s 2023-2025 cohort.

The Azrieli Scholars are provided two years of unrestricted research funding and access to a community of interdisciplinary global collaborators to advance their work on pressing questions facing science and humanity. The Gazette recently chatted with Dr. Devoie about her research interests. Read the story below:

[Photo of Elise Devoie]
Dr. Élise Devoie (Civil Engineering)

The effects of climate change surround us every day, from warm, rainy winters to more severe summer storms, but one aspect people may not be as familiar with is permafrost thaw – the loss of areas where the ground soil, sediment, or rocks are at or below zero degrees Celsius for two or more consecutive years. Permafrost occurs mostly in the Northern hemisphere, close to the Arctic, and spans over 20 million square kilometres across Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Eastern Europe. It is also common in high mountains. In Canada, permafrost regions are home to unique species of birds and herbivores like caribou and muskoxen.

Pretty much every soil contains water, but for permafrost usually this water is frozen. With higher global temperatures, the frozen water in the soil thaws, impacting both the environment and the communities that live on these lands. Élise Devoie, a new faculty member in the Department of Civil Engineering, investigates permafrost thaw and potential strategies to mitigate its impacts. In this Q&A, she highlights why losing permafrost is a pressing concern and comments on her experience partnering with Indigenous communities in Northern Canada in permafrost research and conservation efforts.

Tell me more about permafrost and the impact of it thawing?

Permafrost is a unique feature of cold landscapes, and it's important both to the livelihoods of the local ecosystems and to the Indigenous peoples whose territories have been underlined by permafrost for millennia. Their traditional ways of living and experiencing the land are at risk.

A potential impact of thawing is that permafrost is used to contain all sorts of waste – landfill, mining, nuclear. We count on the impermeability of the frozen soil to contain this waste. If permafrost is thawing, we might see movement of these contaminants into landscape through groundwater.

There are also changes to hydrologic systems: we are seeing an increase in water flow in rivers and streams over the winter, which, again, impacts local ecosystems. We are seeing more floods and more rain during springtime, which impacts local communities and displaces whole villages.

A lot of this is interconnected: for example, caribou feed on the lichen that exists on permafrost plateaux (elevated areas). When these areas thaw, they become more wet, the herds have to look for food elsewhere, which impacts local Indigenous communities that are caribou hunters and herders – it’s an important piece of their identity. Permafrost loss also contributes to increasing mercury levels in fish and, consequently, humans, which poses health risks.

Has working with Indigenous communities influenced your perspectives on this topic? How?

The Scotty Creek Research Station is the first Indigenous-led research park in Canada. It is managed in partnership with local communities, making sure that they have oversight over the research that's happening on their lands. I work very closely with the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson.

Whenever I go there, I talk to the community about my research and try to understand their concerns. I take the questions they have and try to find researchers that can help answer these questions, making sure that we're conducting research in a way that engages with the community.

My favorite experience is being part of a short course that engages high school students. We share the different research techniques we use, and we invite elders to teach them from their perspectives. I love being a part of this course because I get to learn from the elders too! This cross-pollinating of ideas is enlightening.

We also benefit a lot from the Guardian program which provides funding to Indigenous community members to go out on the land in a monitoring capacity. They help us maintain equipment, collect data, do surveys, collect fish samples, and all sorts of things. These people are my closest friends in the community, and I enjoy doing field work and learning with them.

How drastic is the effect of climate warming on permafrost loss?

In certain areas, we already see irreversible losses. In the peatlands that surround the Scotty Creek Research Station, the wetlands and swamps are deeply impacted by thaw. The forest fire that crushed the region in late 2022 made things even worse.

Worldwide, permafrost zones are changing faster even than we had imagined. We've already put enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that a lot of the damage is already done. Permafrost borders are moving northward steadily.

Is there anything we do to reduce or slow down permafrost thawing?

Each and every one of us has a role to play in slowing down climate change. Reducing our ecological footprint is a good place to start.

But there are also specific strategies we can use on permafrost zones, like protecting the tree canopy and using wood chips to increase insulation above permafrost in particular areas – for instance, around a road. There are engineering devices that can be installed in the ground to help cool it down over the winter. These strategies are obviously not reversing permafrost thaw globally speaking, but are mitigation techniques that we can employ locally to protect significant areas and help communities struggling with the impacts of thaw.

What are your research plans for the next few years?

Well, essentially what communities tell me they need. So far, my research has been focused on peatlands environments, where permafrost is discontinuous. But not all permafrost exists in these environmental conditions. I would like to explore other permafrost settings – to start, I’m going to Cape Bounty (Nunavut) this summer to look at a continuous permafrost environment, and I hope to meet with community members in the community of Resolute to understand challenges they are facing.

A large part of establishing this kind of research program is building relationships. I need to invest time, energy, and research funds into building strong partnerships with communities. From these relationships I hope to learn about the most pressing permafrost issues, and steer my research program accordingly.

From the work I already have on the go, I hope to build a global map of the ice content in permafrost – surprisingly enough permafrost can contain a lot of liquid water, and quantifying the water content will help us understand how it is thawing, and what changes to expect. This links to projects focused on the movement of groundwater in permafrost environments, and even through permafrost itself. I hope that this will be a tool that we can use together with communities to help understand some of the rapid changes we are seeing every day.

Environment and Sustainability
Smith Engineering