Illisarvik is a small drained tundra lake on Richards Island, 130 km north of Inuvik, NWT, at the Beaufort Sea coast. Illisarvik is northern Canada's longest-running field experiment. It was conceived by Dr. J. Ross Mackay in the 1960s as a research program on the behaviour of aggrading permafrost. Illisarvik is an Inuvialuit word meaning “a place of learning”.
The lake was drained on 13 August 1978, and field studies have been conducted there continuously since then. Illisarvik is 600 m long by 300 m wide. Before drainage it was up to 5 m deep, but most of the lake was between 2 and 3 m deep. Lake-ice thickness on Richards Island is less than 2 m, so most of the lake bottom was unfrozen throughout the year. In the middle of the lake, unfrozen ground extended to 32 m in depth. Permafrost started to grow into these lake sediments in the winter of 1978-79, following drainage.
Amongst other topics, the research has investigated:
- the growth of permafrost;
- development of ground ice in permafrost;
- development of the active layer;
- pore-water expulsion during permafrost aggradation;
- electrical potentials developed during permafrost growth;
- ground temperatures in permafrost;
- vegetation succession in the drained-lake bottom;
- the permafrost history of Richards Island.
The majority of the research at Illisarvik has been conducted by Dr. Mackay. The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and the former Earth Physics Branch, both of Natural Resources Canada, were instrumental in investigations before drainage and during the 1980s.The GSC maintains an active-layer course on the adjacent tundra. Scientists from other Universities and Government Departments have also worked at Illisarvik. In 1999-2000, the principal research at Illisarvik is being conducted by Dr. Chris Burn (Carleton University) and Dr. Mackay.
The research conducted at Illisarvik has been supported by:
- the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada;
- the Polar Continental Shelf Project;
- Geological Survey of Canada; and
- the Aurora Research Institute.