Oct. 22, 2021

Killam Laureate searches for permafrost in the Canadian Rockies

Gerardo Zegers is one of 28 Killam Pre-Doctoral Laureates for 2021
Gerardo Zegers
Gerardo Zegers

You may wonder, as we all do now and then, what avalanches have in common with marmots. If so, you may wish to speak to a specialist in alpine hydrology like Gerardo Zegers.

A PhD candidate in geoscience, Zegers has been named a 2021 Killam Laureate for his research on transformations in the permafrost of the Canadian Rockies. Through mountain fieldwork and numerical modelling, Zegers seeks to understand both how to identify locations of alpine permafrost, and what the long-term fate of that permafrost will be as climate change proceeds.

Understanding alpine permafrost

In the mountains, permafrost can be buried below sediment deposits and other landforms. “When we think of permafrost, we often think of the North,” explains Zegers. “By comparison, in mountain environments, permafrost occurrence is greatly affected by the complex mountain topography and ground types and is exposed to significant spatial heterogeneity. Some landforms like talus slopes, rock glaciers and moraines have better conditions for generating and sustaining permafrost. Considering the effect of this heterogeneity just within a 100-metre area, you can have zones with and without permafrost.”

This can make finding permafrost a challenge. Once Zegers identifies an area of high probability for permafrost, his research estimates current permafrost conditions along with what effects the permafrost has on groundwater. “In the alpine aquifers that contain permafrost, the permafrost influences the internal flows and the surface water - groundwater interaction. So, we are trying to understand the impact of the decrease in mountain permafrost on groundwater discharge.”

Of marmots and avalanches

“We have a period of around two months each year in which we can get out into the field and place i-buttons, which are surficial temperature sensors that are around the size and shape of a watch battery,” says Zegers. “We record and save the positions, marking them with bamboo sticks with flags on them. We leave them for a year, and then go out in the following field season to recover them.”

Zegers admits that it can be challenging to recover the sensors. “In our first year, we placed 150 sensors and then lost around 10 per cent of them. Marmot theft accounts for some of the losses, while other sensors were buried in avalanches,” he says. “The window to do this backcountry field work is very short. Even in mid-July, we visited a site in Kananaskis that still had almost half a metre of snow in some places.”

Expanding on previous work, Zegers and his team placed around 260 sensors this year. “It’s a lot of work, and we get support from a team that includes a full-time field technician, a field assistant, and other graduate students. This work would be impossible to do on my own.”

Opportunities at UCalgary

As a Chilean, Zegers already had a strong affinity for alpine environments and was a lover of hiking and camping before coming to Canada. When UCalgary’s Dr. Masaki Hayashi, PhD, presented his research in Chile during the Darcy Lecture series, Zegers took the opportunity to introduce himself and discussed his previous graduate work and research at Chile’s Advanced Mining and Technology Centre. It wasn’t long before the meeting galvanized into a doctoral opportunity under Hayashi’s supervision.

“I wanted to do a PhD in Canada, and my partner and I wanted to find a place that worked for both of us. She’s now pursuing a Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development, and we’re really happy to have found a place with a welcoming culture where we can both improve our English, be close to the mountains, and find career opportunities,” says Zegers.

28 Killam Pre-Doctoral Laureates

Being named a Killam Laureate is a confirmation for Zegers that he is on the right track in his doctoral work. “There are a lot of long days when working on a PhD, and with the COVID pandemic making things more challenging, sometimes you lose the perception that you are making progress,” says Zegers. “The Killam award validates that I’m pursuing a good topic, and that others find it important.”

Dr. Donna-Marie McCafferty, associate dean (scholarships) in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, is jubilant about Zegers and all the university’s 2021 Killam Laureates. “We have no less than 28 Killam Laureates this year, all doing fascinating research,” says McCafferty.

“These students are not only among the best and brightest at UCalgary but are in the company of Canada’s elite emerging academics. I know that each of our laureates understands the magnitude of this honour, and we couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship

The Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship is awarded to international and Canadian doctoral students showing the potential to become leaders in their fields. The scholarship is valued at $36,000 annually for two years. While the scholarship provides crucial support for student research, it also brings prestige that can help propel students toward new professional and academic opportunities.