How data gaps affect Canadians and researchers alike

Addressing the data deficits that hold back health care systems

How data gaps affect Canadians and researchers alike

A Globe and Mail article published late January revealed the difficulties of obtaining data in fields such as public health and energy economics.

‘Data gaps’ are the “areas at the national level in which data [is] not collected or readily accessible.” This includes inconsistent data collection, which makes it difficult to compare data, and data that is not updated on a regular basis.

For example, the article reports that data gaps have impeded research in a study on whether the American rise in “deaths of despair” — deaths of the white, middle-aged working class — can be observed in Canada as well.

One reason for data deficits lies in the appropriate collection of data. And even if data has been collected appropriately, barriers to accessing the data may remain.

Associate Professor Arjumand Siddiqi from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health explained in an email to The Varsity that, in her experience, data gaps occur in “groups for which we do not make a concerted effort to sample or identify.”

A summary on the evaluation of the Health Statistics Program between 2011 and 2015 highlighted that one of the recommendations made in the evaluation was regarding management.

The summary explained that for health statistics, which includes births, deaths, stillbirths, divorces, and marriages, the information would now be published 10–11 months after the reference period ended.

A recent blog post by Statistics Canada said that more, specific information on the population was needed to resolve the issue of data gaps.

Siddiqi suggested that statistics may be difficult to obtain as the “infrastructure or the mechanisms” regarding availability and accessibility of the information have not been facilitated by statistical agencies like Statistics Canada. For example, Statistics Canada’s Research Data Centres inhibit collaboration between researchers who are not near the centres in which the data they require is stored.

Data in the field of Siddiqi’s research, which is centred on the relationship between social and economic factors and health, are difficult to obtain.

Other areas in which researchers experience difficulty in studying health are racial inequalities.

“Existing surveys don’t have sufficient sample sizes of non-whites, nor are these samples representative of those populations,” said Siddiqi.

While one tool, like the census, would provide information on Canadians, there lacks a relationship between other sources for the collected data to be useful.

It is important for Canadians to know our statistics as “we need to know what’s happening in our society, who is benefitting, and whom we are failing,” said Siddiqi.

U of T undergraduate co-wins prestigious research award at AIES Conference

Inioluwa Deborah Raji awarded best paper for detecting facial recognition bias in Amazon technology

U of T undergraduate co-wins prestigious research award at AIES Conference

Amazon’s facial recognition technology may be misidentifying dark-skinned women, according to U of T Engineering Science undergraduate Inioluwa Deborah Raji and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab research assistant Joy Buolamwini. This finding helped Raji and Buolamwini win “best student paper” at the Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society (AIES) Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. Held in January, the prestigious conference was sponsored by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the like.

Their paper, which caught the Toronto Star’s attention, was a follow-up on an earlier audit by Buolamwini on technology from Microsoft, IBM, and Face++, a facial recognition startup based in China.

Origins of the research

Buolamwini’s earlier study, “Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification,” investigated the accuracy of artificial intelligence (AI) systems used by the three technology firms for facial recognition. Then-Microsoft Research computer scientist Timnit Gebru co-authored the paper.

Raji wrote that after reading about Buolamwini’s experiences “as a black woman being regularly misgendered by these models,” she wondered if her personal experience would hold true for a larger dataset containing samples of other dark-skinned women. This proved to be the case in the final analysis.

According to Raji, “Gender Shades” uncovered “serious performance disparities” in software systems used by the three firms. The results showed that the software misidentified darker-skinned women far more frequently than lighter-skinned men.

In an email to The Varsity, Raji wrote that since the release of Buolamwini and Gebru’s study, all three audited firms have updated their software to address these concerns.

For the paper submitted to the AIES Conference, Raji and Buolamwini tested the updated software to examine the extent of the change. They also audited Amazon and Karios, a small technology startup, to see how the companies’ adjusted performance “compared to the performance of companies not initially targeted by the initial study.”

At the time of Raji and Buolamwini’s follow-up study in July, Raji wrote that “the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] had recently reported that Amazon’s technology was being used by police departments in sensitive contexts.”

Amazon denied that bias was an issue, saying that it should not be a concern for their “partners, clients, or the public.”

Raji and Buolamwini’s study showed evidence to the contrary. “We found that they actually had quite a large performance disparity between darker females and lighter males, not working equally for all the different intersectional subgroups,” wrote Raji.

Amazon’s response to the study

In a statement sent by Amazon’s Press Center to The Varsity, a representative wrote that the results of Raji and Boulamwini’s study would not be applicable to technologies used by law enforcement.

Amazon wrote that the study’s results “are based on facial analysis and not facial recognition,” and clarified that “analysis can spot faces in videos or images and assign generic attributes such as wearing glasses,” while “recognition is a different technique by which an individual face is matched to faces in videos and images.”

“It’s not possible to draw a conclusion on the accuracy of facial recognition for any use case – including law enforcement – based on results obtained using facial analysis,” continued Amazon. “The results in the paper also do not use the latest version of Rekognition and do not represent how a customer would use the service today.”

In a self-study using an “up-to-date version of Amazon Rekognition with similar data downloaded from parliamentary websites and the Megaface dataset of 1M images,” explained Amazon, “we found exactly zero false positive matches with the recommended 99% confidence threshold.”

However, Amazon noted that it continues “to seek input and feedback to constantly improve this technology, and support the creation of third party evaluations, datasets, and benchmarks.” Furthermore, Amazon is “grateful to customers and academics who contribute to improving these technologies.”

The pair’s research could inform policy

Raji wrote that while it’s tempting for the media to focus on the flaw in Amazon’s software, she thinks that the major contribution of her paper is in helping to uncover how researchers can effectively conduct and present an audit of an algorithmic software system to prompt corporate action.

“Gender Shades introduced the idea of a model-level audit target, a user-presentative test set, a method for releasing results to companies called Coordinated Bias Disclosure,” wrote Raji.

In other words, Raji and Buolamwini’s research showed an effective way for companies and policymakers to investigate and communicate a problem in software systems and take action.

Most importantly, wrote Raji, the studies highlight the need for researchers to evaluate similar software models “with an intersectional breakdown of the population being served.”

Who knew cannibalism could be sexy?

The male redback spider has evolved to offer himself to females as a post-sex meal

Who knew cannibalism could be sexy?

During sperm transfer and climax, the male redback spider does a somersault of sorts, placing his abdomen in the perfect position for the female to eat, and more often than not, she goes for it.

Whether you think it romantic or horrific, there is something captivating about this ultimate sacrifice during the moment of climax. But because of this, the female redback may remain a lonely single after sex, albeit a little less hungry.

Black widows are also members of the Latrodectus genus to which redbacks belong.

This act of sexual sacrifice, called ‘terminal investment,’ has been extensively studied by the lab of Dr. Maydianne Andrade at UTSC, where thousands of black widows — notorious for their highly potent and neurotoxic venom — share refuge.

However, if you think it romantic, perhaps the male spider’s reasoning for sacrifice may make you think again. It appears that the male redback’s terminal investment serves an evolutionary, or depending on how you look at it, selfish purpose.

Though it may seem counterproductive for a male spider to sacrifice his entire existence for just a single shot at producing progeny, there are several adaptive advantages that he gains by taking this risk.

Self-sacrifice serves to enhance male paternity both by increasing the number of eggs the male spider fertilizes and by decreasing the chance that their female partner will mate with another competitor.

Andrade’s team found that six out of nine females that cannibalized their partners refused to mate with a second male, while only one in 23 females that didn’t have the pleasure of consuming their mates did the same.

Also, the chance that the male could mate again if he escapes the fangs of his lover is meagre. Therefore, his self-sacrifice offers a way to give it all he’s got by partaking in the ultimate act of evolutionary fitness.

Though female redbacks can be violent in their courtship, they do offer some mercy to the fittest of their male counterparts.

‘Premature cannibalism’ — which occurs before copulation is complete — is much less common if the male offers courtship for over 100 minutes, a marathon of sorts for the reward of paternity. However, males that are ready for this marathon must be wary of cheating competitors that can sneak in at the finish line, disguise themselves as the winner, and avoid being prematurely eaten.

And when it comes to being eaten by their mate, size does matter. Females are less likely to prematurely cannibalize a large marathon runner than a small sprinter.

However, more importantly, a male is less likely to be eaten by his female counterpart if she is well-fed — he only offers a meal sized at one or two per cent of her body mass.

Unfortunately for him, food is typically a rare commodity for a plump female redback in her native Australian habitat, so she may well take the meal that he offers in addition to her potential future offspring.

While this extreme sacrificial gesture and its violent ending could be seen as a spider’s ultimate Valentine’s Day gift, in the end, it is neither the life of the female nor the male redback that is rewarded, but their offspring that ultimately earn the gift of life — and go on to do the same.

The man, the myth, the clitoris

How anatomical misconceptions impact women’s health and sexuality

The man, the myth, the clitoris

Freud, who I’d absolutely be down for in another place and time, famously said that clitoral orgasms were infantile and their recipients frigid. Well, pass the mittens, Sigmund.

Like the majority of histories about female health, the story of the clitoris isn’t heartening.

Understandings of the clitoris have largely been shaped by societal norms around femininity, rather than scientific rigour or reality.

Premodern, modern, and even contemporary discourses surrounding the clit are guided mainly by patriarchal priorities. Past depictions of it involved associations with witchcraft, names such as “shameful member,” and claims that the clitoris was effectively a “female penis.”

Disgusted as I may be by the rise of white women calling themselves ‘witches’ for owning a succulent and the like, I do appreciate the associative power of drawing a connection between the clitoris and the supernatural.

In the twentieth century, the clitoris was erased from medical textbooks, including the famous 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, or mentioned with little information and accuracy. For authors and researchers, the clitoris seemed to be a low priority — especially compared to male genitalia, which usually received extensive, accurate coverage. Today, however, this is not necessarily the case.

U of T Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Christine Derzko explained that there are a significant number of studies and academic papers dedicated to sexual dysfunction.

But, in her opinion, a “lack of information or misinformation about women’s sexual health has left many women to simply accept sexual difficulties.” This means that women are often suffering in silence “rather than seeking medical help for their problems.” These could include painful intercourse and hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which could be due to psychological issues like emotional or physical abuse. Only relatively recently, in 1981, was an anatomically correct image of the clitoris developed by the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Clinics. In 2009, the first 3D sonogram of the clitoris was created in France — a famously sexy country — by two researchers in the urology department of Saint-Germain-en-Laye Hospital.

In 2017, French engineer, sociologist, and independent researcher Odile Fillod developed and shared a 3D, life-size model of the clitoris. Contrary to popular belief, the clitoris is not the size of a fingernail!

As Fillod’s model shows, it’s usually over 10 centimetres in size and shaped like a wishbone that would fit nicely in a short person’s palm. Her model is free to download online, and inquiring minds can even print it out for themselves using a 3D printer.

Fillod told The Atlantic that she created the model to help educate young people, who are often taught “that boys are more focused on genital sexuality, whereas girls care more about love and the quality of relationships, in part because of their ‘specific anatomical-physiological characteristics.’”

Although teaching scientifically accurate anatomy doesn’t seem that revolutionary, in this case, it is. Undoing heteronormative, sexist, and essentializing beliefs about traditionally female genitalia is a radical act. Asserting a right to pleasure is political.

The clitoris itself is a bundle of super sensitive nerves above the vagina that extends into the body. It has twice the number of nerve endings as a penis, but, like the penis, has erectile tissue that can swell when stimulated. The clit has great blood supply, which means it can fluctuate in size repeatedly, allowing for multiple orgasms in close succession.

Freud’s argument, first made over 100 years ago, was that as girls matured, they transitioned from clitoral arousal to vaginal. He posited that women who orgasmed from vaginal stimulation were more psychologically mature, competent, and healthy. Although debunked, this theory still resonates today and stigmatizes those who rarely or never orgasm from purely vaginal intercourse.

But, according to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report, only around 25 per cent of women “always have orgasm from intercourse, while a narrow majority of women have orgasm with intercourse more than half the time” and “roughly one third of women rarely or never have orgasm from intercourse.”

Not only does this Freudian make-believe obscure interest in or care for the clitoris during intercourse, it also unnecessarily segments sexual pleasure between the vagina and the clitoris. Pushing back on this narrative and others that have cropped up to support it is key.

People with different genitalia often experience sexual pleasure differently. While people with penises reliably climax during intercourse, those without usually require different kinds of stimulation. That stimulation varies widely between individuals, making ‘good sex’ much harder to quantify or enumerate.

As explained by the NIH, some “reach orgasm from direct clitoral stimulation, indirect clitoral stimulation, vaginal stimulation or stimulation of internal areas surrounding the vagina,” whereas others orgasm solely from penetrative intercourse, simultaneous stimulation, or not at all.

Derzko explained that while male orgasm is achieved with “a delicate balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system,” for females “the experience of orgasm is more complicated.” She highlighted that while “the autonomic nervous system plays an important role, including modulating brainstem function… the stress may lie more heavily on the physical anatomy itself.”

But understanding the clitoris isn’t just important for sexual education — it’s vital for doctors, too. In a 2005 study in the Journal of Urology, researchers reported that “because surgery is guided by accurate anatomy, the quality and validity of available anatomical description are relevant to urologists, gynecologists and other pelvic surgeons.”

This impacts clitoral preservation in invasive surgeries, as well as for broader basic complaints that women might bring to their doctors regarding clitoral pain or infection. On a broader scale, women’s health issues are often misdiagnosed or ignored entirely. Take endometriosis, or the condition where uterine tissue grows on other pelvic organs, which is estimated to affect one in 10 Canadian women but takes, on average, eight to nine years to diagnose and receives relatively little research funding.

As a woman with both a clitoris and endometriosis, this was a sad article to write. I know how frustrating it is to have a doctor dismiss you, or a sexual partner not really grasp your anatomic reality.

This is why better education is necessary for everyone. Fillod’s model is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. We have centuries of misconception to dismiss and so much more to discover.

How to maintain Valentine’s Day flowers

Scientific ways to care for your bouquets

How to maintain Valentine’s Day flowers

If you are lucky enough to receive a floral Valentine’s gift, then you’ll want to keep it fresh and fragrant for as long as possible. This collection of science-backed tips may help.

Stem trimming

This is a common trick, but we must be particular about it.

Stems should be cut at a 45-degree angle in order to maximize water absorption by increasing surface area. They should be trimmed underwater to prevent air bubbles from forming and blocking the passage of water through the stem ends. Furthermore, trim according to the vase: adjust the length cut off based on the depth and shape of the vase, and re-trim every time the water is changed.

Keep away from heat and dampness

Recent studies from Horticultural Science and Technology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest that flowers have a longer vase life when in dehumidified greenhouses and cool storage. So keep flowers away from radiators, heaters, and other damp conditions, such as near glass that is prone to condensation or in bathrooms with showers and baths.

However, ensure that they don’t become dehydrated!

Always keep cut flowers in water and store them in a fridge or dark cupboard whenever they do not need to be seen. Try to avoid harsh sunlight in general; a table beside the window is preferable to the window sill itself.

Change water daily

It may seem to be a basic aspect of flower care, but it’s important nonetheless. As flowers begin to use up their water, the stems take up less, causing them to become dehydrated and their petals to wilt.

Discard used water as it can contain bacteria, which can kill or damage plants, and refill the vase with fresh water, ensuring that none of the flowers themselves are below the water line. Remove all leaves below the water line to inhibit bacterial growth.

Don’t put them by the fruit bowl

Ripening fruits release small amounts of ethylene gas, which can reduce the longevity of flowers as it acts as a growth hormone. Place them elsewhere to avoid buds blooming too early or leaves shedding.

Prune regularly

Remove dead flowers and leaves quickly to avoid bacterial growth and reduce the risk of attracting flies or other bugs, which could eat parts of the plant or otherwise cause damage.

Link between ancient arthropod groups unearthed

Agnostinids and trilobites found to be long-lost relatives

Link between ancient arthropod groups unearthed

Agnostinids are a group of extinct early arthropods and have long confounded scientists on where they fit in the evolutionary tree.

PhD student Joseph Moysiuk and Associate Professor Jean-Bernard Caron from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology have discovered that agnostinids may be a sister group to trilobites. The findings were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on January 29.

The fossils used for the study come from the Burgess Shale fossil deposit in Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park in British Columbia and are kept at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Burgess Shale is significant due to its age and what specimens it preserves.

This fossil deposit dates back to the Cambrian Period, which was over half a billion years ago.

During this period, the Cambrian Explosion occurred, during which “the first representatives of most major living animal groups appear in the fossil record for the first time,” wrote Moysiuk in an email to The Varsity.

Furthermore, the Burgess Shale has preserved specimens exceptionally well, beyond just bones and shells, but also soft tissues such as nervous systems and digestive tracts as well.

Modern examples of arthropods include insects, crabs, and spiders.

Trilobites lived over 250 million years ago and, physically, “can be thought of as resembling a modern horseshoe crab, although they are at most very distant ‘cousins,’” wrote Moysiuk.

Evolutionary relationships can be traced by looking at shared characteristics between species. To determine where agnostinids fit with other arthropods, their fossils were used to note the similarities in “the armor and soft tissues of trilobites and other groups,” wrote Moysiuk.

While they share some similar characteristics with trilobites, agnostinids, which lived almost 100 million years ago, are eyeless and have dumbbell-shaped bodies.

Furthermore, there are six pairs of limbs located in the head of the agnostinid. In comparison, trilobites have four pairs and the mouthparts in a modern insect’s head are actually modified limbs.

The agnostinid specimen used in the study had preserved soft tissues, specifically the limbs. Moysiuk explained that the “first pair of limbs in agnostinids are long sensory antennae. These are followed by oar-like swimming appendages and several sets of walking legs.”

The relationship between the groups was established through a phylogenetic analysis, which “resulted in an evolutionary tree in which agnostinids and trilobites are more closely related to each other than to any other group,” added Moysiuk.

This finding led to a grouping in which agonostinids are part of a sister group to certain trilobites. The study found that the shared characteristics were of soft tissues and the armour — specifically the tergites, or shield-like plate covering, and cephalic shield, which covers the head area.

“The close relationship between trilobites and agnostinids, despite the difference in [the] number of head limbs, supports the notion that the composition of the head in early arthropod groups may have been evolutionarily variable, in contrast to its general stability in many modern groups like insects or spiders,” wrote Moysiuk.

Moysiuk noted that the best preserved specimen was from Marble Canyon, an area first mentioned in 2014 in Kootenay National Park. “This study is just one of a number of exciting discoveries that have come out of this site, with many more to come!”

Further research into the head region of arthropods and the development of early trilobites is needed to determine the relationship between the groups with greater specificity.

Highlights from the Arts & Sciences Students’ Union Research Conference

Students showcase their research at the second annual ASSU conference

Highlights from the Arts & Sciences Students’ Union Research Conference

The Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) Undergraduate Research Conference took place in Sidney Smith Hall on Friday, January 25. The second annual conference brought together students from the natural sciences to the social sciences.

Students communicated the methods, results, and impact of their work by delivering talks and presenting posters to conference attendees.

In an interview with The Varsity, ASSU Executive Victoria Chen noted that the conference was valuable to both listeners and presenters.

For attendees, going to research talks enables them to learn about other disciplines. For presenters, delivering research talks enables them to develop their public speaking and science communication skills.

Highlighting environmental science research

In his opening remarks, Faculty of Arts & Science Dean David Cameron drew attention to research led by Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) undergraduate Cole Brookson.

Brookson presented his findings on microplastics — pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in size — which had been found in 87 per cent of the double-crested cormorants sampled in the Great Lakes. The cormorant is a species of seabird.

Brookson and his colleagues were surprised to find microplastics in the digestive systems of cormorants from an unexpectedly wide geographic range, from Hamilton Harbour to eastern Lake Michigan.

The high quantity of microplastics in the Great Lakes is especially concerning because its consumption can be deadly to seabirds, causing starvation due to a false perception of fullness. Digesting plastic can also cause hormonal problems.

While the results of Brookson’s study do not present direct risks to human health, they do demonstrate how improper plastic waste disposal can impact wildlife.

Plastic can take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade, if it ever does at all,” said Brookson. “When you don’t manage your waste properly, when you don’t have effective mitigation strategies, you end up having this persistent pollutant that just never goes away.”

From health to human geography

Presenting his research findings on the hepatitis B virus (HBV), immunology major Seungwoo Lee explained how the introduction of lactose into donated white blood cells (WBCs) could reduce binding of the galectin protein to T cells, which are immune cells. These T cells attack HBV-infected cells that die off when galectin binds to them. In 10 per cent of HBV patients, binding has reduced the number and effectiveness of T cells, which could make them more susceptible to cancer. These findings could be used to mitigate the risk of developing cancer in some patients with HBV.

Lee showed that introducing lactose into human WBCs blocks the reception of galectin by T cells, boosting the number and effectiveness of T cells.

These findings could give rise to better treatment options for patients with HBV, and reduce their risk of developing cancer.

Neuroscience student Alexandra Kassikova showed how transforming the astrocyte brain cell into the oligodendrocytes brain cell could be a promising treatment option for multiple sclerosis.

Kristina van Veen, who studies human geography, showed how emojis are changing the way we communicate. She highlighted how emojis can take on unique interpretations within small social groups, and how their inclusion in text could lead to misinterpretation.

Evelyn Ullyott-Hayes — a student studying Middle Eastern civilizations — used a software program called JSesh to translate the Middle Egyptian text written on an artifact that is part of a collection in the Royal Ontario Museum.

Where art meets science

Patrick Fraser, a physics and philosophy specialist, spoke about how ghost imaging in experimental quantum physics may have implications for how we define the representation of objects.

In classical imaging, said Fraser, we visualize objects because the light reflecting off of them is registered by our eyes.

But in ghost imaging, using quantum optics, researchers are able to observe particles that are highly correlated to, yet physically distant from an object under study. These particles then let us create a precise image of the distant object.

Current philosophy contends that photos are “representative of the objects they depict in some direct contact mechanism,” but for this to stay true, only a small number of interpretations of quantum mechanics can remain true.

To accept a larger number of interpretations, said Fraser, we may have to dispose of this intuitive definition.

Disclosure: Tom Yun, former Managing Online Editor, was a moderator at the event. Ibnul Chowdhury, current Comment Editor, presented a talk on research at the event. Neither are directly mentioned in this article.

The disappearing permafrost

Navigating a thawing landscape

The disappearing permafrost

Stepping out onto the sidewalk from Robarts Library, it’s obvious that winter is in full swing. The air has gone cold, turning that pleasant fall nip into a winter bite. And although it would seem that the freeze is inescapable, not all temperatures are dropping.

Despite the frigid weather, global warming is still in effect. Since 1975, average global temperatures have been increasing at a rate of roughly 0.15–0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, prompting consequences such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, disappearing Arctic ice, and severe droughts and floods.

Another major unseen consequence of this climb lies deep beneath the tundra soil. The frozen expanse known as permafrost is beginning to thaw.

According to Dr. William Gough, a climate change researcher at UTSC, the thawing process occurs annually. “The surface area actually thaws and then refreezes and thaws… and that’s called the active layer.” The active layer supports vegetation and wildlife and acts as a buffer for the area underneath, allowing it to stay frozen even during the summer.

This subsurface expanse is called permafrost, soil that remains continuously frozen for two or more years, though it can be thousands of years old.

Although associated with the frosty expanse of the Arctic Circle, variations of permafrost can be found in in almost all provinces and territories with the exceptions of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Approximately 40–50 per cent of Canada is underlain with permafrost.

Gough studies the effects of permafrost shrinkage along the James Bay coastline in Northern Ontario, searching to see if permafrost is still present in the region.

Due to the loss of snow and ice caused by the warming, the darker ground absorbs more solar energy, resulting in a heated active layer that no longer protects the permafrost. The amount of permafrost decreases as the soil thaws, and eventually the layers collapse.

From 2007–2016, permafrost temperatures were found to have risen approximately 0.29 degrees. This has already started to have lasting consequences.

In the Sakha Republic in Russia, the ground has begun to collapse under itself, resulting in a half-mile-long opening in the ground known as the Batagaika Crater. Measurements of the crater have indicated that it has doubled in size within the past five years.

The Batagaika Crater “was a disturbed system. So they had taken down a bunch of trees that reduced the amount of shade and so the surface warmed and then there was a positive feedback and the crater formed,” said Gough.

“It illustrated how fragile the system is…that’s an analogue to much of what the climate system may be experiencing where it’s fragile in the sense that if you push it, it will sort of gallop off into a positive feedback.”

As the ground begins to warm, large volumes of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon would be released as organic material stored within the permafrost begins to decay, accumulating in the atmosphere and accelerating the pace of climate change.

Neurotoxins such as anthrax and methylmercury are emerging from the mushy soils as predicted in a 2011 study, five years before the 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia. These toxins have the potential to spread and cause outbreaks for wildlife and eventually humans.

Across the land, tilting forests, thaw pools, collapsing craters, and landslides pockmark the regions where permafrost has begun to disappear, turning an invisible phenomenon into a very visible problem. Structural integrity and storage of organic material are benefits of permafrost, which have started to unravel as temperatures increase.

In addition to the devastating environmental effects, these consequences have also found their way into the lives of people living in the affected regions. The daily bustle of life also results in the gradual heating of the once permanently frozen soil beneath, causing buildings to lean, roads to buckle, and slopes to fail.

“Historically, you can build on permafrost. What you do is you put a pylon down and the pylon… sits on that piece of permafrost below, which is always frozen,” said Gough. “Now, the problem with global warming is that the active layer is getting deeper so… the foundation of the pylon is lost because then it’s just dangling in air and so the building will sink or shift…It’s been engineered for a certain active layer depth.”

In some cases, such as for the inhabitants of Shishmaref, Alaska, the loss of permafrost will result in complete collapse of the soil, leading to an annual seven-metre recession of the shoreline and the evacuation of a town that can no longer be occupied.

Currently, there are plans to slow the consequences of climate change. Governments entered into the Paris Agreement in 2016, pledging to limit the global average temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

However, the following year, a 2017 United Nations report indicated that if newer, more rigorous carbon goals aren’t set by governments by 2020, we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

At the local level, there are attempts to curb the thaw of permafrost in human inhabited regions. During the construction of the Qinghai–Xizang Railway, a transport corridor running across the Tibetan Plateau, crushed rock served as an aid to lower the ground temperature and prevent the permafrost from thawing and, in some cases, increase the height at which permafrost occurs. Similar designs for the stilts that prop up buildings use convection currents to bring cooler air down into the ground to maintain the freezing temperatures.

However, these projects require frequent monitoring, which may make them costlier in more ways than one. Research done at McMaster University has also found that peat and additional forest cover can aid in keeping temperatures lowered; however, this can increase the likelihood of fires, which will in turn cause warming of the ground.

Despite these gloomy trends, people may start moving into these vulnerable permafrost regions, not for prevention, but for gain. At the direction of the Trump administration, the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska is being auctioned off in the largest lease sale of public land in the history of the United States.

Fossil fuel companies are being given access to land, some of which is environmentally sensitive, to extract the potentially recoverable 89.9 billion barrels of oil and 1,668.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas present in the Arctic regions.

Canada’s northern territorial governments and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation are also looking to make use of the resources as the Trudeau government’s 2016 ban on Arctic drilling is up for review in 2021. While there are obvious social benefits for the communities involved, there may be some long-term consequences to be mindful of.

“There’s a range of potential disasters and impacts… It’s really what kind of infrastructure you’re bringing into an area that’s been sort of pristine [that’s] been used for many generations by a native population. We know what an urban structure does… it totally and radically changes the nature of the environment,” said Gough. “So I worry, and I worry about the infrastructure that’s needed to be there to do the drilling.”

He stressed the environmental consequences. “You only have to only see one oil spill to see how devastating it is on a local level. The Arctic ecosystem is a fragile one, it doesn’t have a lot of redundancies… [the ecosystem] is much more sensitive to change and so you do something devastating, it takes a long time to recover.”

And although living in southern Ontario may protect us from the physical consequences of permafrost, we are not exempt from the financial consequences. The release of carbon dioxide and methane from the thawing permafrost will result in economic impacts that total $43 trillion USD, increasing the total cost of climate change to $398 trillion USD, a 13 per cent increase.

But perhaps it is best not to think of these consequences in terms of money. Our economy can be revived, but our environment can’t. Permafrost has many roles, not only for wildlife, but also for the people who live in surrounding areas. For some, such as Indigenous peoples, leaving their traditional land as it breaks down is not an option.

We can’t abandon a sinking ship when there are no lifeboats to separate us from the frigid water below. Combatting climate change is a decision made by governments and the people who vote for them.

It’s a choice that we must make.