The southern limit of permanently frozen ground or permafrost is retreating and is now 130 km further north than it was 50 years ago in the James Bay region, according to Canadian researchers.

Permafrost or permafrost soil is soil at or below the freezing point of water (0 degrees Celsius) for two or more years. A considerable area of the Arctic is covered by permafrost.

Serge Payette and Simon Thibault, biologists from the University of Laval, suggest that if the trend continues, permafrost in the region will completely disappear in the near future.

They measured the retreat of the permafrost border by observing hummocks known as “palsas,” which form naturally over ice contained in the soil of northern peat bogs.

Conditions in these mounds are conducive to the development of distinct vegetation - lichen, shrubs, and black spruce - that make them easy to spot in the field.

In an initial survey in 2004, the researchers examined seven bogs located between the 51st and 53rd parallels.

They noted at that time only two of the bogs contained palsas, whereas aerial photos taken in 1957 showed palsas present in all of the bogs.

A second assessment in 2005 revealed that the number of palsas present in these two bogs had decreased over the course of one year by 86 percent and 90 percent respectively.

Helicopter flyovers between the 51st and 55th parallels also revealed that the palsas are in an advanced state of deterioration over the entire James Bay area.

While climate change is the most probable explanation for this phenomenon, the lack of long term climatic data for the area makes it impossible for the researchers to officially confirm this.

Payette, a professor, notes, however, that the average annual temperature of the northern sites he has studied for over 20 years has increased by 2 degrees Celsius, said a Laval release.

“If this trend keeps up, what is left of the palsas in the James Bay bogs will disappear altogether in the near future and it is likely that the permafrost will suffer the same fate,” concludes the researcher affiliated to the Centre d’des nordiques.

These findings were published recently in Permafrost and Periglacial Processes.