A new study is telling us more about the relationship between wildland fire and thawing permafrost in the Northwest Territories.

The study, “Wildfire as a major driver of recent permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands,” published in Nature Communications is part of a partnership between the Government of the Northwest Territories and researchers at the University of Alberta.

Researchers Carolyn Gibson and David Olefeldt found that wildland fire has tripled the rate of abrupt permafrost thaw.

“Wildfire is a very important force on the landscape, and what we see here is that it continues to have impacts long after the burning is done,” Gibson says.

The study examines the impacts of wildland fire on permafrost in the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta and found that wildland fire is responsible for about 25 per cent of permafrost thaw in the last 30 years.

Permafrost thaw is expected to accelerate throughout the 21st century in response to a warming climate,” the study states. “The rapid ecological and hydrological changes associated with permafrost thaw not only affect community infrastructure, traditional land use, and water resources, but are also expected to cause soil greenhouse gas emissions that potentially constitute a globally significant positive climate feedback. Projections of future permafrost thaw may however be low as they do not consider the potential destabilization of permafrost following wildfire.

“Historically, permafrost in this region underwent a natural cycle of thawing and reforming; however, given current climate conditions and projections for the future, this fire-induced permafrost thaw appears to be irreversible,” Gibson says.