Brett Young, Arctic Gateway Group
Dec. 14, 2022
UCalgary researcher heads up major federal permafrost study in Manitoba
It’s kind of like the hit television show, Ice Road Truckers, only it’s on a train track.
The Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) links the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba to communities like Gillam, Thompson and The Pas.
It’s an important track for residents and cargo in the province, but it also carries some risk along its 1,300-kilometre route because of permafrost.
In July, the Government of Canada announced it was investing $4.4 million over six years in a study to better understand the current and future conditions of permafrost along the corridor.
“The unusually warm weather can partially thaw permafrost, making the ground under rail lines unstable, posing danger and disruption to people and trade,” Omar Alghabra, minister of transport, said in a news release. “Our government understands the need to invest in research on how climate change impacts our rail network. We need to adapt and we need to prepare.”
Among the researchers heading up the project is Dr. Jocelyn Hayley, PhD, Schulich School of Engineering professor and Department of Civil Engineering head.
Hayley is one of several researchers from across the country forming the PermaRail team, which will study the line in a $9-million project funded by Transport Canada, the National Trade Corridors Fund, and significant in-kind contributions and collaborations.
Her expertise in thermal and pressure effects on soils and linking it with the impacts on infrastructure tied in well to the needs of the group when it was chosen to study the HBR.
“The railway itself runs from no permafrost, through discontinuous permafrost zones, all the way up to a continuous permafrost, and they have experienced issues with the railway in the past,” says Hayley, who authored the proposal entitled “PermaRail: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Increasing Railway Resilience to Permafrost Terrain Changes in a Warming Climate.”
Hayley’s father actually worked on the same railway as a permafrost engineer when the line experienced issues in the 1980s, so she had access to some of the original files and reports in his home office.
“They implemented a variety of methods to keep the ground cold in those discontinuous permafrost zones, because engineers rely on the strength of the frozen ground staying cold to support the railway above,” she says.
As the railway changed hands, work to understand and plan for permafrost issues went dormant for some time.
A complex project
After washouts in 2005 and 2017 that all but isolated Churchill and other communities that relied on the HBR, along with changes in ownership, Arctic Gateway Group (AGG) purchased the line and port in August 2018.
In 2021, a partnership 41 First Nation and HBR-line communities — known as OneNorth — became the sole owners of AGG.
Brett Young, Arctic Gateway Group
AGG general manager Brett Young says he learned about the port and the potential it holds while he was growing up on a rural Saskatchewan farm.
“Although the corridor has been in place for nearly a century, there are still challenges that remain for Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port, given the remote, challenging terrain over the changing permafrost conditions of the Hudson Bay Railway,” he says.
AGG immediately went to work getting the line operational again, with the first trains arriving in Churchill just a few months later.
Hayley says her team is using the latest technology to stay on top of the changing dynamics along the line.
“They’re looking at track geometry, using LiDAR technology and drones to check and observe the embankments and overall health of the line,” she says.
It’s still a very remote area and being able to use different technologies is game-changing compared to what we had in the 1980s.
Hayley says they will be looking at everything from the soil types and state of the permafrost at different points along the line, predicting how they might be impacted by climate change, and consider the impact of water coming from permafrost thaw and changes in weather and how to manage all of this along the railway.
She says even something like a shift in the prevailing winds could change where snow falls and has an impact on permafrost stability.
“Climate is more than just the temperature changing,” says Hayley. “Like with water, how if where it sits in the ground might thaw the underlying permafrost and create a hole. There are so many things that are interconnected.”
Hayley says it’s a complex project, which speaks to the magnitude and length of the grant.
More than just a rail line
Along with Arctic Gateway’s Indigenous and community-based ownership model, success of the project will be measured in the economic and environmental sustainability for the railway and the port, says Young.
“This can be accomplished when we advance our understanding of the changing permafrost conditions and apply this understanding in the form of solutions for efficient and resilient construction and maintenance methods,” he says. “This will not only apply to Hudson Bay Railway, but to any further development of railway or other infrastructure in Canada’s vast Arctic.”
Once they know what they are working with, the researchers will then be able to plug in potential scenarios to see what might happen, then develop solutions and remediation plans in hopes of preventing a similar scenario to that which cut off Churchill and other HBR communities.
Hayley is hopeful that, at the end of the six-year project, they will have a framework for continuous monitoring so communities can make the most-informed decisions.