Thaw-Scape Scrutiny

Federally funded research will help set a baseline for how to build in the Arctic.

By Zach Mortice 

Utqiagvik, Alaska, where the researchers will be examining surface hot spots where melted ice pools. Photo by Andrew Shea/Arctic Design Group, 2017.


In Alaska, beyond the Arctic Circle in North Slope Borough, Indigenous communities practice subsistence whale hunting. To store the whale meat, tribal communities dig ice cellars in the permafrost, a major infrastructural feat, as a 50-ton whale can feed thousands. But as climate change melts permafrost, the cellars are failing, leading to spoiled food. Studies have indicated that climate change may be a factor, but soil conditions and development on top of cellars are also causing warming and potential failure. “We keep it there in trust for the community,” says Gordon Brower, the director of North Slope Borough Planning and Community Services and a member of the Iñupiaq Indigenous community. “To keep that type of meat secure and healthy, we need to evaluate our earthen storage shelters.”

How might designers augment ice cellars’ cooling capacity in ways that support Indigenous traditions, while contending with the Arctic’s position on the front lines of climate change? This question is just one part of the National Science Foundation-funded research by the University of Virginia’s Arctic Research Center, aimed at gathering data to determine the design parameters for Arctic infrastructure in an era of expanding development and climate change, says Leena Cho, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UVA. Cho, her partner Matthew Jull, an associate professor of architecture, and a team of UVA researchers will install aquatic, meteorological, and geotechnical sensors in the North Slope Borough town of Utqiagvik. This data will help Cho and Jull formulate guidelines for building height, form, materials, and foundations, as well as wider urban planning concerns in the Arctic.

The entrance to an ice cellar. Photo courtesy Gordon Brower.

Founders of the Arctic Design Group, Cho and Jull see the Arctic as a bellwether for changes to come elsewhere, and as a singular venue to test and develop innovative design ideas, as well as methods of collaboration that can address the constraints of climate change. Even as melting sea ice expands the bounds of commerce, the thawing permafrost literally shifts the ground beneath one’s feet—the Arctic—and Cho and Jull plan to track these changes to determine how to meet them with stable, functional, and sustainable development.

The Arctic is an “extreme and very dynamic environment that constantly goes through cycles of weather and climate where water in its phases between liquid and solid [is] constantly renegotiating and reconfiguring the organization of the land,” Jull says. “How can we learn from that and develop more resilient design strategies?”

Utqiagvik (population 4,000) is the northernmost settlement in the United States. The UVA team will install a tight, focused network of sensors in city limits that belies the vastness of the surrounding North Slope Borough: 89,000 square miles, larger than the state of Utah. This focus on Arctic urban conditions, say Cho and Jull, is the most unprecedented element of the research. The National Science Foundation grant provides $3 million over five years, enough for a wider UVA contingent, including students and faculty from the schools of environmental science, engineering and applied science, and data science. Researchers will be monitoring aquatic environments (water chemistry, organic matter), meteorological conditions (humidity, wind speed, particulate matter, solar radiation), and subsurface environs (soil temperature, moisture), looking in with ground-penetrating radar, with full sensor installation tentatively set for next summer.

“How do these measurements and sensors allow us to identify specific characteristics of the built environment that are influencing the surrounding natural environment?” asks Jull. “What are the ways that we can mitigate the impacts of the built environment on the surrounding tundra?”

In addition to North Slope Borough government and Utqiagvik residents, Cho and Jull are partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).

View of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, and the Chukchi Sea in February 2020. Photo by Chengxin Sha/Arctic Design Group, 2020.

Tom Douglas, a senior scientist with CRREL, will be looking at ambient ground conditions, but also how built infrastructure changes the “thermal regime of the ground surface,” he says, altering snowpack and vegetation. By digging sample pits and drilling for core samples, he’ll be looking at existing hot spots, where surface water ponding and thaw happen, and helping to plan future growth. “By looking at how buildings interact with the permafrost in places that have been disturbed, and measuring the characteristics in what I’d call more pristine areas they might be building on in the future, we can hopefully guide them [toward] the [best] design.”

Jull wants to look beyond pro forma, Western ways of developing and building in the Arctic, where Cartesian grids pop up in relative isolation in communities largely connected by airplane. “Is that necessarily a good thing?” he asks. “We will find out.”

The urban landscape of Utqiagvik. Photo by Andrew Shea/Arctic Design Group, 2017.

This process includes input from the local communities, and the UVA team will work with the Iñupiaq Indigenous residents throughout. “Through their subsistence practices and other cultural lenses, [Indigenous people] are really attuned to reading the environment,” says Cho, offering often-untapped ability to interpret weather patterns, geology, and ice formation.

Trying to design for Arctic urbanism without grounding in this Indigenous understanding is “trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Brower, who will be collaborating with the researchers. “We’ve been here 12,000 years. We’re already masters of our own environment.”

And from this perspective, the success of the UVA research effort will depend not just on the technocratic solutions that aid building in Arctic environments, but on how well they integrate with existing ways of living and how well they allow these traditions to flourish on their own terms.

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