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Half of Dawson City could be lost to permafrost, says Ottawa prof

Dawson City is sinking and half of the historic town of 1,319, which was the center of Canada's gold rush in 1896, could be destroyed by melting permafrost, says University of Ottawa geography professor and permafrost expert Antoni Lewkowicz.

"Half of Dawson is built on permafrost and if the permafrost temperature raises by one degree it will cause major problems for the buildings," he said. "It's an icon for Canadians and the only solution I can come up with is to put a lot of money into keeping the ground frozen."

Lewkowicz is set to give a talk called 'Why is thawing permafrost like defrosting a turkey?' at the university on Thursday.

"Permafrost is like a turkey in that the surface warms quickly, but but then it takes a long time for the ice in the centre to thaw," he said. What he's worried about is the positive feedback loop melting permafrost creates.

"To thaw a turkey you put warm water on it, and we have a site in the Yukon where we're watching nearby water helping it thaw."

In 35 years working in and studying the Arctic, Lewkowicz said he is seeing "indications all around the Arctic that the permafrost is warming."

In 2010 he and two graduate students redid a survey from 1964 looking for permafrost along the Alaska highway. They found that half the permafrost was no longer there.

"My hope in giving this talk," he said, "is to educate the public and alumni about this issue and place it higher in the attention of politicians."

Professor Antoni Lewkowicz will speak Thursday, May 10, at Jock Turcot Hall.

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