Dempster-ITH Water Quality Monitoring

Main Project Contact:
Erika Hille

Project Start Date:
April 2017

Project End Date:

Project Name:

Spatial and temporal variability in the water quality of streams along the Dempster and Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway corridor

ARI Team:
Edwin Amos

Greg Elias

Ryan McLeod

Former Team Members:

Elye Clarkson


Increases in air and ground temperature, which are related to recent climate change, have contributed to the thawing of permafrost soils across the Canadian Arctic. The effects of recent climate change on permafrost are compounded by construction and development, which often leads to localized permafrost thaw. This is especially problematic in the Western Canadian Arctic, which hosts the highest density of road and community infrastructure in the Arctic region of Canada. In the Western Canadian Arctic, permafrost thaw is responsible for dramatic changes to the landscape. The permafrost in this region of the Arctic is ice-rich and contains large bodies of ice called massive ice, making it particularly sensitive to landscape change. When disturbances to the landscape (i.e. fire, shallow landslides, thermal and mechanical erosion, construction) expose massive ice, the ground can become unstable and collapse, in a process known as retrogressive thaw slumping. In addition to unprecedented landscape change, this process continues to affect the water quality of freshwater systems.

As permafrost thaws, previously frozen organic and mineral material is mobilized and transported to freshwater systems in water runoff. Retrogressive thaw slumping has set the context for most of the water quality studies in the region, which often use slump-impacted streams and lakes as an analogue for the effects of permafrost thaw on Arctic freshwater systems. Few studies have looked at the impacts of permafrost thaw on freshwater systems not impacted by thaw slumping. Consequently, little is known about how other forms of disturbance influence water quality and how this varies across the Western Canadian Arctic. This is a critical research gap considering that the water quality impacts of permafrost thaw are dependent on terrain features, such as relief, surficial geology, and permafrost conditions, all of which are highly variable across Arctic landscapes.

The goal of this project is to examine how the water quality impacts of permafrost thaw manifest in contrasting permafrost landscapes, with a focus on the Beaufort Delta Region. Better understanding spatial variability in the effects of permafrost thaw will enable us to make more accurate predictions of how permafrost thaw and landscape disturbances will affect aquatic systems in the future.


  1. Examine spatial and seasonal variability in the water quality of streams located along the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highways.

  2. Characterize each stream catchment based on landscape features (e.g., vegetation, surficial geology, permafrost conditions, and relief), in order to determine how landscape features influence regional variability in the response of freshwater systems to permafrost thaw.



This study examines a suite of streams and rivers located along the Dempster and Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. These locations were chosen because they represent a wide range of vegetation (forested, tall shrub, tundra), geological (glaciated, unglaciated), permafrost disturbance (polygonal terrain, retrogressive thaw slumping), and relief (low to high) conditions.



In the years 2017-2020, water quality and stream flow data was collected every 2-4 weeks for the spring, summer and fall months. Data was collected more frequently during and immediately following major hydrological events (e.g., spring snowmelt, extreme rainfall). In 2021, water quality data was also collected over the winter months. All water samples were sent to Taiga Environmental Laboratory for analysis. In Fall 2021, the contributing catchment for each stream will be characterized by landscape characteristics (e.g., vegetation, surficial geology, permafrost conditions, and relief) using terrain information obtained from detailed satellite imagery. This information will be used to examine inter-annual, seasonal, and spatial variability in the water quality data.



Year Season Task
2018 - 2019

Spring Snow melt

biweekly water sampling
  Summer and Fall monthly water sampling
2020 Spring Snow melt canceled
  Summer and Fall monthly water sampling
2021 Winter biweekly water sampling
  Spring Snow melt biweekly water sampling
  Summer and Fall monthly water sampling











External Partners:
Steve Kokelj, Northwest Territories Geological Survey
Ashley Rudy, Wilfrid Laurier University


Arctic, Freshwater, Streams, Stream Flow, Water Quality, Permafrost, Slumping, Physical Sciences, Climate Change, Hydrology  





Updated May 2021