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Yukon permafrost to be displayed at the Canadian Museum of Nature

January 10, 2017

LOUIS-PHILIPPE ROY with the two permafrost core samples that will be displayed in Ottawa.

WHITEHORSE—Two permafrost core samples taken from alongside the Alaska Highway in Yukon will be part of a new Arctic gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

While permafrost cores have travelled south for research purposes many times, this will be the first time in Canada that permafrost cores will be publicly displayed in a museum.

“We wanted visitors to the Arctic gallery to learn about ways in which the changing climate is affecting Canada’s North and the risk to highways and buildings from thawing permafrost,” said Caroline Lanthier, Senior Content Developer for the Arctic gallery, Canadian Museum of Nature.

“The timing of the museum’s request was fortuitous as my colleague and I had been devising a way to display permafrost cores, both for research purposes and public viewing,” said Dr. Fabrice Calmels, permafrost researcher.

For several years, Calmels and climate change and permafrost technical analyst, Louis-Philippe Roy, have stored the many permafrost core samples they collect each summer in freezers at the Yukon Research Centre Lab. Retrieving the cores for research or sharing with students and visitors requires removing them from the freezer and handling the cores directly, which over time reduces the integrity of the cores.

Following some experimentation, Calmels and Roy developed a way to present cores without the need for handling, or the risk of degradation to the core itself. Each core section is cut in half vertically, polished and then placed in a glass jar. The jar is then filled with cooled silicone oil, which has a very low freezing point. The oil preserves the core and helps magnify it.

The Yukon Research Centre Lab now has a display freezer containing 10 permafrost core samples stored from the Alaska and Dempster highways, Old Crow and Jean-Marie River, NWT.

Last month, Roy transported two permafrost core samples, along with silicone oil and presentation jars, to the museum’s Collections Facility in Gatineau, Quebec. They will remain in storage there until transferred to the climate section of the museum’s new permanent Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, which will open June 21, 2017.

“For the museum we selected cores that show two distinct types of permafrost features present in Yukon. Both types are highly vulnerable to thawing,” said Louis-Philippe Roy.

One core was collected at a depth of 2.8 metres near Burwash Landing. It contains a 10 cm section of pure ice and sediment containing fine sand and silt. The second was collected at a depth of 3.4 metres near the Yukon–Alaska border and shows the transition between fine-grained material and pure ice from an ice wedge. This ice forms when water penetrates into cracks formed by thermal contraction, and subsequent freezing in the permafrost.

“Here in Yukon, due to the changing climate some of this particular permafrost may not exist in 10 years or so,” said Dr. Calmels. “But it will exist in a museum in Ottawa.”

Plans for the new gallery were announced last September. The gallery is the national museum’s legacy project for Canada’s 150th anniversary.