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Big Data: Guiding Research and Evidence-Based Action

While living in Canada my whole life, I’ve grown our awareness of the disproportionate effects climate change has in Canada’s north and the environmental racism endured by rural communities. Permafrost is the frozen state of any type of ground–whether it be soil, sediment, or rock–for a minimum of two years. According to Rutledge, permafrost is largely composed of soil, gravel, sand, and potent GHGs, as well as ancient bacteria and viruses within the deep layers of soil. When thawed, these newly-unfrozen microbes are exposed to humans. Permafrost contains over 50% of the global carbon pool, which is four times the amount of carbon released by human activities since 1850.

Piece of permafrost from the Arctic Circle (Elberling, 2023).

There are two key surface types when discussing permafrost. First is the active layer, which is above permafrost. Heat is transmitted to and from to it mitigate thermal variations. Sometimes, a second layer–called talik–is present. The presence of this is a dangerous indication of permafrost degradation and greater water flow. Permafrost makes up around 15% of Earth’s land and covers over 40% of Canada’s land. However, with Canada warming at two times the global rate and the Arctic at three times, temperatures above-freezing point are making thawing increasingly prevalent. According to Struzik, it is predicted that 40% of the world’s total permafrost will thaw before the end of the century.

Different types of soil layering caused by altering climates (Canadian Permafrost Association, 2023).

In this project, two datasets from the same subarticle region in Canada were gathered from the Environmental Information Data Centre, a department of the Natural Environment Research Council. One contained soil temperature and the other was thaw depth both in 2013 and 2014. This data set was not only credible with accuracy but also prevalent for this study research as it is located in a densely populated area in Northwest Territories. The data was downloaded as comma-separated value files and cleaned prior to the visualization. The variables that were selected to perform the data analysis include thaw depth, landscape features, thaw depth, soil depth, and soil temperature.

The code for data analysis was written using Python in Google Colaboratory. Important packages that were used include pandas, numpy, and matplotlib. Data frames were created with pandas which were made into arrays with numpy and then graphed using matplotlib. The data went through another round of cleaning using tokenism and stemming. A cvs reader was used to open the files to split the data into the different attributes by looping through each row and appending values to respective lists.

Snapshot of raw data used.

Snapshot of data visualization code.

The purpose of analyzing soil depth, temperature, and other variables was to understand their correlations. Particularly, I hoped this code would be able to provide specific insights into the patterns and trends in specific regions. The data visualization of the open-access data from a specific region in the subarctic allowed us to do so. The soil profiles that were used from the data set only included summer months, thus micro-data visualization was conducted to provide clearer identification of certain patterns.

Soil profile depths in summer 2013 and 2014.

The first plot created compared soil depth and temperature. From this figure, there is a strong, negative correlation between depth and temperature, where a greater depth insinuates a lower temperature. This affirms the research I conducted, as it is known that there are multiple layers of soil and permafrost is often the deepest due to its requirement for year-round freezing conditions. However, when observing the plot, at the 0°C line, there are multiple possible depths for which permafrost thaw begins, likely due to the range of months captured by the data sets used.

Data visualization of soil depth vs. temperature.

When specifically looking at thaw depths in the summer of 2013, it is clear that thaw depth greatly differs among the different landforms observed. This is shown by the pretty wide ranges of the temperatures represented by each column’s height. However, there is a strong pattern that thaw depths in late July are the greatest. It is likely that at this time of the year, the soil is the warmest and exposed to the sun the most.

Thaw depth in summer 2013.

Figure 12 was generated to analyze the correlation between temperature, thaw depth, and soil depth. Figures 13 and 14 were generated to provide more clarity and specified data visualization. A unique observation that was made was that the thaw depth in 2013 averaged around 55 cm while it averaged around 43 cm in 2014. This marks a significant decrease in thaw depth and may indicate a particularly warm summer in 2013. All in all, through generating these figures, patterns of the region in question can be concluded and statistically significant predictions of permafrost thaw in following years can be made.

Observation of soil and thaw depth, and temperature.

Soil and thaw depth, and temperature in July 2013.

Soil and thaw depth, and temperature in July 2014.

Through our data visualization, we’ve recognized the implications of generalizing Arctic regions. For example, temperatures in 2014 were observed to be lower than in 2013, which opposed the expectations I had while researching. Furthermore, there are disparities amongst regions and thus hyper-focused analysis is critical.

The understanding of permafrost comes with its correlation to the sustainability of housing, especially in the North. The stability of infrastructure is closely tied to the soil it is built upon. Soil stability must exist for at least 80 meters for buildings and 2 meters for detached homes. The rise of permafrost thaw brings staggering long-term impacts on both existing infrastructure and the construction of new ones. With the leverage to significantly alter hydrology, thaw-freeze cycles, vegetation, and more, subarctic ecosystems are expected to dramatically change.

Infrastructure, including homes, buildings, highways, sidewalks, and powerhouses, is vital for the social and economic well-being of the 120,000+ people who live in Canada’s north. According to a paper by Ran et al., the permafrost-rich region of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will require over $6.31 billion USD to “maintain the service function of current infrastructure.” Moreover, the rapid thawing of permafrost has increased the occurrence of environmental disasters like slumping, landslides, lake enlargement, and flooding. One instance occurred in September 2017 in Inuvik, Northwest Territories when a landslide occurred after heavy rains. It flooded drainage systems and destroyed outdated and inadequate infrastructure. According to Canada’s latest climate plan, Northwest Territories has more than $1 billion worth of infrastructure currently at risk due to permafrost thaw.

There is no miraculous solution for the stopping of permafrost thaw because it is a problem that is a result of rising temperatures and degrading ecosystems. Though, this would require global actions toward decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable lifestyles. When specifically looking at infrastructure, a study from the Nature Journal revealed the possibility of using hoofed herbivores–such as horses, bison, and reindeer–to increase the ground’s insulation by increasing snow density from the trampling of animals. This would ultimately increase the ground’s insulation strength. Additionally, a group of researchers from the University of Edinburgh studied the effects plants have on regulating soil temperature and concluded that the shade decreased the ground’s exposure to heat, making it a natural insulator.

This study utilized data visualization code to better understand the patterns and trends of regions in the Arctic Circle and facilitate evidence-based action. With hundreds of thousands of people living in the North and unique biodiversity, understanding the implications of thawing permafrost will allow for the better development of management plans.

Read the full manuscript here.


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