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Residents of Nain, N.L., walk on the frozen Old Dam Pond as Unity Bay in the Labrador Sea looms in the distance. Thawing permafrost has caused problems for infrastructure around the remote northern community, making new developments challenging and expensive.

Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

If the back end of the Puffin Snacks shop sinks any further into the ground, Dorman Webb says he’ll have to start stacking the crates of beer in the opposite corner of the building just to slow things down.

Mr. Webb, who has owned Nain, N.L.'s, only beer store since 1971, admits the sinking foundation is getting a little out of hand. Inside, the tiny shop’s wooden floor and shelves are slanted like they’re on a ship frozen mid-lurch. Customers kind of slide toward the cash register when they walk through the door.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to jack that corner up, and the next year, it’s gone down again,” he said. “It’s almost like Jell-O down there. There’s no point in putting blocks under the store any more, because it just keeps sinking.”

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Nain's Puffin Snacks convenience store is leaning dramatically as permafrost under the building melts.

Nain

Atlantic

Ocean

QUEBEC

NEWFOUNDLAND

AND LABRADOR

Gulf of Saint

Lawrence

St. John's

N.B.

Charlottetown

Fredericton

N.S.

Halifax

0

250

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Nain

Atlantic

Ocean

QUEBEC

NEWFOUNDLAND

AND LABRADOR

Gulf of Saint

Lawrence

St. John's

N.B.

Fredericton

Charlottetown

N.S.

U.S.

0

250

Halifax

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Nain

Atlantic Ocean

QUEBEC

NEWFOUNDLAND

AND LABRADOR

Gulf of Saint

Lawrence

St. John's

Quebec City

N.B.

Charlottetown

Fredericton

N.S.

U.S.

0

250

Halifax

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Thawing permafrost is changing the landscape in communities across northern Labrador. In Nain, a predominantly Inuit village that is the most northern community in Newfoundland and Labrador, the changing permafrost has affected everything from the post office to the airport to the construction of a new $18-million cultural centre.

Permafrost, a concrete-like combination of soil, rocks and sand held together by ice that remains frozen year-round, is depleting at an alarming rate across Canada’s North. As the Earth’s climate warms, that ice is melting, causing erosion and shifting underground that can destroy houses, roads and other infrastructure.

Residents gather on Nov. 21 for the Illusuak Cultural Centre's official opening.

When the Nunatsiavut regional government opened the Illusuak Cultural Centre last month with the cutting of a sealskin ribbon and steaming bowls of partridge stew, it was celebrated as a way to preserve the region’s Inuit heritage and draw tourists to the gateway of the Torngat Mountains National Park.

But it’s what’s underneath the building that really tells the story of how a warming climate is altering life in Labrador. It took two years of work just to prepare the ground for the centre’s construction, and designing a foundation capable of keeping the centre stable as the permafrost beneath it melts. The centre is built on special piles reaching down more than two dozen metres to bedrock, using huge pillars with “sleeves” that can move as the ground thaws.

“We knew before we built there was an issue with the permafrost that was different from the permafrost seen further north,” said Kerry Gosse, the lead architect on the project for Stantec, the consulting firm that led the construction.

The permafrost problems added extra costs to a project already delayed by several years, challenged by a short construction season and the additional expense of bringing in materials and contractors from the south. The building’s construction, which began in 2012, may offer some lessons for communities farther north, where permafrost usually appears closer to the surface and is often thicker.

“This is the evolution, climate-wise, of what people fear is going to happen further north," said Leslie Snow, a Stantec engineer who oversaw construction. “The issue here, it’s a deteriorating, deep permafrost."

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Mountains tower over the Labrador Sea outside the Illusuak Cultural Centre as locals take a look around.

Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe prepares to cut a sealskin ribbon with an ulu, an Inuit cutting tool, to officially open the centre.

The centre features a model of the northern Labrador coast, where rising sea levels pose a hazard for anyone erecting new buildings near the shoreline.

The centre, built on the community’s shoreline on the site of a long-gone caribou meat processing plant, was designed by Todd Saunders, an internationally recognized, Newfoundland-raised architect based in Norway.

Illusuak, which in English means “sod house,” is intended to serve as a centrepiece for the community, with permanent exhibits on Inuit history and culture, a gift shop, café and multipurpose theatre.

Inside the building, which was funded by the Nunatsiavut and Canadian governments and a trust fund established through the Labrador Inuit land claim settlement, there are artifacts, carvings, hunting tools and other displays that show how Inuit culture has evolved over the centuries.

The people of northern Labrador say they’re continuing to adapt to a changing world.

Concern over rising sea levels along the Labrador coast also called for the construction of a massive breakwater to protect the building from the bay. For designers used to working in remote, northern communities, it was just another environmental challenge.

“Projects like this are becoming more challenging now because you have to find ways to deal with climate change,” Ms. Gosse said.

Pedestrians walk along a snow-covered road in Nain. The fate of the region's permafrost will depend on how quickly it will melt and how much snow there will be to replenish it, but that's hard for scientists to predict.

Robert Way, a Queen’s University geographer who worked on a permafrost study for the Nunatsiavut government, said the cultural centre sits on about 18 metres of permafrost. Scientists know Labrador’s permafrost is melting, he said, but they don’t know how quickly, since there haven’t been many studies done in the past. “We don’t know how much it’s thawed,” he said. “In terms of describing change, it’s hard because we don’t have a lot of long-term data to look at.”

Changing snowfall levels along the Labrador coast make it even harder to predict what will happen with permafrost in the future, Dr. Way said.

There’s also very little funding available to monitor permafrost and other climate indicators in Labrador, he added. That presents a problem in places like Nain, a community of about 1,400 that’s growing rapidly but doesn’t have a lot of reliable information around which land to build on, he said.

“As these communities are trying to expand further, it’s something they don’t really have the resources to deal with,” said Dr. Way, who is from Labrador. “The permafrost issue is at the forefront of people’s minds, but we’re still not at a point where we have a good map of where the permafrost is.”

In communities farther down the Labrador coast, the lack of reliable information on permafrost thaw has led researchers to rely on historical photos, using them as a rough gauge to see where the ground has shifted and sunk, he said.

The permafrost problems in Nain extend to the community’s airstrip, built on such shifting ground that it couldn’t get approval to install lighting posts. That means all flights, even medical evacuations, can only take place in daylight hours. Nain’s historic wooden Moravian church, just down the road, has struggled with a sinking foundation, too, and has had its floor raised to counter the ground’s erosion.

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Passengers gather to load their baggage on an Air Borealis plane at Nain's landing strip.

Anecdotal stories about environmental changes abound in Labrador. Locals mourn the disappearance of bakeapples, the beloved orange berries that used to carpet the landscape, and vanishing caribou herds, which they blame on a warming climate.

Sea ice, a critical link between communities and often the only way to access hunting grounds, seems to be less reliable and arriving later each season, they say. Stretches of northern Labrador that used to be tundra just a few decades ago are now covered by two-metre-highshrubs, Dr. Way said.

As Labrador warms, it’s affecting everything from building construction to traditional food sources to transportation networks. These changes can’t be treated as separate issues, said Rodd Laing, director of environment for the Nunatsiavut government. For Inuit, everything springs from the land, and it’s actively thawing beneath their feet.

The Illusuak Cultural Centre shows how Inuit have learned to live in a land of snow, ice and permafrost for thousands of years. Now they’re trying to plan for an uncertain future where everything seems to be changing.

“Climate change affects all those pieces. Everything is connected here, that’s how Inuit are looking at this,” Mr. Laing said. “Thawing of permafrost is obviously going to have implications for infrastructure, and planning for that and being pro-active is important. But the reality of climate change is things are happening so fast, sometimes you’re surprised by things."


Primer: The stages of permafrost’s decay

As the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, the permafrost – permanently frozen ground – is thawing, putting cities, oil pipelines and other infrastructure at risk

Continuous:

Permafrost contains plant and animal remains

Active

layer

Discontinuous:

Action of microbes causes organic material to decompose into carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)

Sporadic-isolated:

CO2 and CH4 released into atmosphere

CO2

CH4

SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS

As the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, the permafrost – permanently frozen ground – is thawing, putting cities, oil pipelines and other infrastructure at risk

Continuous:

Permafrost contains plant and animal remains

Active

layer

Discontinuous:

Action of microbes causes organic material to decompose into carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)

Sporadic-isolated:

CO2 and CH4 released into atmosphere

CO2

CH4

SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS

As the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, the permafrost – permanently frozen ground – is thawing, putting cities, oil pipelines and other infrastructure at risk

Continuous:

Permafrost contains plant and animal remains

Discontinuous:

Action of microbes causes organic material to decompose into carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)

Sporadic-isolated:

CO2 and CH4 released into atmosphere

CO2

CH4

Active

layer

SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced Nain, Nfld instead of the correct Nain, N.L.

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