Indigenous-Led Permafrost Research in the Dehcho Region

In 2019, the Dehcho Collaborative on Permafrost (DCoP) launched as a coalition between the Scotty Creek Research Centre (SCRC), Dehcho First Nations (DFN), and Indigenous communities in the region to evaluate the impacts of permafrost thaw in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories (NWT). A part of DCoP’s research involves developing a regional permafrost map and monitoring permafrost changes that will help the Dehcho people better plan and prepare for the impacts of permafrost thaw on their land and way of life.

The Dehcho Region is in the southwestern part of the NWT, bordering British Columbia and the Yukon. In the Dehcho region, people are becoming more aware that permafrost thaw is transforming the land, affecting access to natural resources, and damaging its roads, air strips, ferry crossings, pipelines, buildings, and other key infrastructure. Despite this, regulatory authorities, resource management boards, local communities and decision-makers who are interested in the stability of infrastructure don’t have access to tools to deal with this issue. There isn’t enough monitoring, planning for change, or the ability to predict what might happen. The SCRS (a non-profit, Indigenous-led research station) and Indigenous communities of the Dehcho are working together to make new tools that improve the understanding of, and ability to predict and adapt to permafrost thaw.

DCoP and their partners are producing permafrost maps as a first step toward defining the current distribution of permafrost in the Dehcho. They are also establishing an Indigenous community-led network to monitor changes to permafrost using both conventional temperature-based and new (DCoP-developed) ice-content monitoring probes. The initiative works with DFN communities, to combine scientific and Indigenous knowledge on permafrost to bridge the gap in knowledge and resources and help everyone in the region adapt to the challenges posed by permafrost thaw. DCoP’s engagement of Indigenous communities, regulatory authorities, and research teams ensures a holistic and inclusive assessment of permafrost impacts.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Permafrost is continuously frozen earth beneath the surface layers that freeze and thaw with the seasons and it covers about 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass. But with northern Canada warming about three times as fast as the rest of the world, climate change threatens the permanence of vast stretches of this frozen ground — and the ecosystems and communities it supports. People living in the subarctic Dehcho region of the NWT are seeing shorter and warmer winters, snow melting earlier in the year, more frequent and severe wildfires, and permafrost thaw, which is receding by about one meter per year. These changes are seen in the flow of the streams, the thickness of the ice on the lake and throughout their forests, which are dying off and being replaced by wetlands.

The SCRS has experienced the effects of climate change firsthand. In 2007 and 2012, SCRS was forced to relocate because melting permafrost had destabilized platforms and other camp infrastructure. Then in the fall of 2022, an intense unseasonal wildfire destroyed the SCRS research station and causing about $2 million in damage. The facility lost research equipment, solar panels, and buildings including housing and lab facilities. Despite attempts like fire breaks and sprinklers, the fire, ironically, consumed the research facility dedicated to understanding climate change. Although the station is once again operational, it will remain closed to researchers until 2024.

This type of fast-paced ecological change is known all too well by communities in the Dehcho and the rest of the Arctic. Recently, the community lost an Elder who fatally fell through ice while fishing – an activity previously considered to be low-risk. It’s becoming more common for equipment like snowmobiles to fall through ice, which are costly to replace. Heavy rainfall events that lead to flooding are also making it difficult for residents to locate and access traditional trails used for hunting, often leading to long detours. These incidents highlight the urgency of addressing climate change in this unique region.

DCoP relies on different types of data to better understand how permafrost is changing in the region. SCRS hosts approximately 100 automated stations where thousands of data points are collected per hour to monitor changes in the landscape. Measurements include meteorological variables including short and longwave radiation, air temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, water table depth, soil moisture content and ground temperature, precipitation, carbon fluxes, water quality parameters, and related variables. They utilize remote sensing data to measure where permafrost exists in the landscape and how quickly its thawing. Field observations, ground-based surveys, and airborne lidar data are all used to understand how climate change is affecting aquatic ecosystems, water quality, wildfire patterns, greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall livelihoods of the Dehcho Region.

The data and related information gathered by DCoP is used to inform land surface schemes (e.g. WARF, CLASS, etc.) and local and regional climate models used by researchers to examine the impacts of climate warming induced changes to the form and functioning of ecosystems on water resources and climate. Carbon flux data are entered into the AMERIFLUX data repository which is available to researchers and government agencies for climate research and climate change prediction.

Identifying Actions

DCoP’s approach to understanding how the region is changing because of climate change is unique. It combines Western science with Indigenous Knowledge. DCoP employs a community-informed approach to identifying strategies for improved permafrost thaw monitoring, prediction and adaptation. This came after community leaders recognized that new knowledge would be far more impactful if it was co-developed and co-applied with Indigenous community members. This approach is applied throughout the initiative, including the development of research questions, research grant applications, and research teams, which include both university-based and Indigenous community-based members. Close consultations with Indigenous communities throughout the Dehcho led to the creation of DCoP’s Five Themes:

Theme 1: Co-develop with Indigenous Communities
Theme 2: New Initiatives for Improved Monitoring
Theme 3: Improved Adaptation
Theme 4: Improved Process Understanding
Theme 5: Improved Prediction

Each Theme has a set of objectives. For example,

  • Objective 1 (Theme 1): gather and synthesise the Indigenous Knowledge pertaining to permafrost and permafrost thaw in the Dehcho and compile this information into the Permafrost Resources.
  • Objective 4 (Theme 2): produce permafrost probability maps as a first step toward defining the current distribution of permafrost in the Dehcho and establish an Indigenous community-led network to monitor changes to permafrost using both conventional temperature-based and new (DCoP-developed) ice-content monitoring probes.

In addition to the Themes, close consultation with Indigenous communities throughout the Dehcho identified six broad research questions:

Q1: Where is permafrost located within the Dehcho and where is it thawing?
Q2: What is the rate and pattern of permafrost thaw?
Q3: How is permafrost thaw changing land?
Q4: What adaptation and mitigation measures can or should be taken?
Q5: How is permafrost thaw changing the flow and storage of water on the land?
Q6: What is the long-term trajectory of thaw-induced change to the land and water?

Indigenous scholars, researchers, and community members all play an integral role in ensuring fair and inclusive participation with local communities, making sure everyone talks openly about what matters to their work or focus area. Indigenous Guardians are trained to watch over and describe the health of the land and species in the Dehcho region. In 2020, both Indigenous Guardians and DCoP members learned how to use digital maps. They can now turn their on-site observations into digital maps and data layers. This helps them identify and keep an eye on places where permafrost might be thawing.

Dieter Cazon, who is in charge at Liildii Kue First Nation, stresses how important it is for Indigenous Knowledge and Western science to work together. Cazon asks researchers to fill out journals about the plants and animals they see in the field. This information is then shared with Elders who can interpret it and provide feedback to everyone involved. Collaboration like this helps make the research more meaningful and accurate.


Since the launch of DCoP, several actions have been successfully implemented. These include:

  • Ongoing community events to identify new risks of concern to the community as the landscape changes and identify knowledge-based community adaptation strategies.
  • Development of a Dene-language based regional climate change adaptation strategy.
  • The production of high-quality datasets serving as the foundation for all policy and management decisions as noted in the “Knowledge Agenda” (2018) of the Government of Northwest Territories.
  • The development, testing, and validation of permafrost probability and thaw susceptibility mapping techniques against field data and deployment across the Dehcho Region.

DCoP researchers and community members continue to co-develop several knowledge-based resources for permafrost adaptation. They developed the DCoP’s Permafrost Resources, which includes real-time data, data archives from the DCoP research and monitoring sites, remote sensing data layers and synthesis products including interactive maps of permafrost distribution, thaw susceptibility, and permafrost thaw-induced land-cover changes. These resources are continually updated and can be accessed by submitting a request through the SCRS website ( This portal helps support resource management operations and makes valuable expertise readily available to local communities.

The research team has also successfully developed and tested new ground-freezing systems at SCRS. Data from these devices have shown that talik layers (year-round unfrozen ground that lies in permafrost areas) successfully re-froze. These devices are now being installed for trials in the community to see how effective they are at preserving infrastructure.

Finally, the research team has published several key research articles that contribute new knowledge on permafrost thaw processes and their impacts on water resources.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

DCoP’s fusion of Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge has led to several positive learning outcomes. In 2017, the SCRS and DFN piloted a one-week field course at Scotty Creek on permafrost and related topics customized for the Dehcho. This course has been offered each year since 2017 and includes a mixture of Dehcho high school students and university students. The field courses provide Dehcho students with unique on-the-land experiential learning opportunities and a voice in creating new knowledge alongside researchers, university students, elders, and other community members. This approach places Indigenous community youth at the forefront of scientific research on subjects of importance to their communities. As a culminating task, the Dehcho students present their work to their high school peers, and to community members and researchers at one of the regular co-hosted (SCRS-DFN) community workshops, where research results are presented and discussed. The new friendships and respect that quickly developed between the university students (predominantly from urban, southern Canada) and the Dehcho high school students has been one of the most rewarding outcomes of this initiative.

With the intent of fostering Indigenous leadership and building internal capacity, First Nation Guardians are being trained to take leadership roles in running the station and collecting data for permafrost mapping.

Additional outcomes include:

  • Officially established as the First Indigenous-led Research Station in the world;
  • Greater community leadership in research;
  • Better coordination: training, monitoring, research;
  • New high-quality data sets;
  • Data archive / portal;
  • New predictive tools;
  • New technologies; and
  • Launch of the “All Ages, All Voices” Indigenous podcast.

For DCoP, continuous funding from a diversity of sources and long-standing partnerships with communities, universities, and others have been vital for the initiative’s ability to undertake its work. The funding has helped remove certain barriers like the high cost of transportation needed to access the remote and northern setting of the Dehcho Region. Examples of DCoP’s funding sources include ArticNet, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Future Skills Centre Grant, Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC)’s Climate Change Preparedness in the North Program / Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program, Government of NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program (NWT CIMP), and others.

Next Steps

In late 2023, DCoP received funding from NSERC for a sub-project called Permafrost Open Data System (PODS). This project aims to develop standardise data formats, archiving and data query tools to help make existing and future data accessible to as many people and organisations as possible. They used the funds to hire a data specialist who is based in Yellowknife and is applying PODS to the Scotty Archive.

In the next few years, DCoP will shift from being led by researchers to being led by the community. Researchers and community members in DCoP will work together to create, evaluate, and implement new strategies for understanding and predicting permafrost thaw. These strategies will be based on both scientific knowledge and input from the community. The initiative will use monitoring, field studies, and new tools to support these strategies, as outlined in the Pan-Territorial Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. The new approaches will involve changing land-use practices to minimize negative effects and using new methods and technologies to counteract permafrost thaw and its impacts. DCoP will consider recommendations from reports and connect field studies in the Dehcho Region to better understand the effects of permafrost thaw. As DCoP grows, resources will be continuously updated, including new tools for managing permafrost, responding to thaw, and preventing its impact, as the communities adapt to the changing world around us.