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  • Product Sheet: Permafrost zone stability

Permafrost Zone Stability/ frost heaving/discontinuous permafrost

Image credit: Arctic Technology Conference – 2014



Component products

Surface Motion



  • Seismic planning - areas of poor coupling
  • Surface geology mapping - engineering geological evaluation
  • Subsidence monitoring - infrastructure monitoring
  • Logistics planning and operations - facility siting, pipeline routing and roads development

Geo-information requirements

  • Surface and ground motion
  • Lithology, geology and structural properties of the near surface
  • Sub-surface features and covered infrastructure


Permafrost zone stability products can be delivered from the scale of a licensed project site that has monitoring conditions attached to the license to a regional scale that looks at the total route plan for a pipeline or road infrastructure project. They are useful in the planning stages for infrastructure development, monitoring of infrastructure impacts on permafrost, and monitoring return of permafrost post-decommissioning and remediation. Some guidance is available to industry, such as the Canadian Standards Association standard for moderating infrastructure degradation due to permafrost. Permafrost monitoring is performed with both radar and optical imagery.

Products derived from radar (SAR) imagery:

The main radar derived product is InSAR monitoring on a seasonal and annual basis.

InSAR derived ground deformations will provide seasonal information on the freeze/thaw movement related to the active layer above the permafrost. Correlating these movements annually to determine a yearly trend line will identify zones that are stable versus areas that exhibit overall permafrost deterioration trends.

If archived data are available, a historical trend line would be extremely useful. 

Products derived from Optical imagery:

Multi-spectral optical images can be used to generate a surficial sediment map. This is a special form of land cover and incorporates northern land classes such as organics, clays, bedrock, silt, sand/gravel, water, till, etc. Surficial sediment maps highlight stable areas (e.g., bedrock), areas where there is potential to disturb permafrost (i.e., removal of organics), and where existing water bodies present a challenge for infrastructure development.

Permafrost models are important to determine the longer term impacts of warming temperatures on highly susceptible areas. This includes permafrost depth, thickness, and temperature profiles, and surficial cover. The models are developed with field information and extrapolation techniques. Various climate change models are then applied to the permafrost model to determine the likelihood of permafrost degradation with changing air and ground temperatures over several decades.

With the combined EO based analysis and permafrost models, a prediction of the most stable routes or sites can be made for infrastructure development. Predictions can include assessment of the amount of surface removal that the permafrost can withstand, and when climate change would become a factor in ground stability.

The permafrost monitoring product provides colour coded maps indicating relative magnitude of deformations, and stable zones, including correlations with previous years. A report on routing alternatives can be generated. Raster or vector model outputs can also be provided.

Known restrictions / limitations

Radar-derived products:

Highly vegetated or hilly areas can interfere with ground motion estimation and limit the utility of the methods. Another limitation is the ability to correlate seasonal measurements from multiple years to determine annual trends. Areas of persistent snow cover can also present technical issues.

Approaches to mitigate these issues include:

1)      Using radar with longer wavelength (e.g., L-band) that provides better penetration of a vegetation canopy;

2)      Using existing infrastructure and buildings data to improve the quantity of coherent scatterers;

3)      Using shorter repeat cycles (e.g., Sentinel 1); and

4)      Multi-year datasets.

Optical-derived products:

The main limitation with optical products is the short growing season in cold climates, and therefore the availability of suitable data sets for sediment maps. The use of Landsat-8 with Sentinel 2 will help mitigate this issue with additional images over the area of interest.


The permafrost models are typically derived from surface geophysical measurements. These can be expensive and therefore control sites must be carefully chosen and surface/sub-surface lithology correlations must be used to extrapolate site measurements over wider areas.  Some of these formation maps are available from local Geoscience offices.

Lifecycle stage and demand

Pre-License Exploration




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Pre-License: Information on historical deformation zones to support identification of high risk areas. Also new monitoring programs to capture several years of deformation maps and routing options.  Generation of baseline trends of ground deformation are a major capital cost driver at this stage, and influence the likelihood of regulatory approvals.

Exploration: Information from assessments made during the Pre-license stage support mitigation measures that could be implemented and tested for high risk areas (river crossings, critical habitat, etc.).

Development: Information from assessments made during the Pre-license stage support design for areas of concern and further evaluation of mitigation strategies.

Production: Information from assessments made during the Pre-license stage support monitoring for areas of concern.

Decommissioning: Baseline information supports return to stable permafrost regimes or identification of deterioration due to climate change.

Geographic coverage and demand

Coverage and demand is for northern development globally in both continuous and discontinuous permafrost zones.

Challenges Addressed

OTM:008   determine historical ground movement for infrastructure planning

OTM:009   Determine historical ground movement for pipeline routing

OTM:016   Identification of seasonal obstructions to logistics activity

OTM:023   Enabling survey to understand structural properties of the sub-surface for infrastructure planning

HC:1105    Identify permafrost zone for data analysis

HC:3202    Monitoring pipeline stability in discontinuous permafrost

HC:5302     Terrain stability for route planning

HC:5306    Assessing terrain stability for infrastructure planning in permafrost environments


Input data sources

Optical: HR1, HR2

Radar: HR1, HR2

Supporting data:

  • Digital Elevation Models (DEM) Existing GIS data such as surface cover maps and topographic maps
  • Local knowledge

Spatial resolution and coverage

Spatial resolution: 10 m radar and optical imagery is adequate to highlight areas of active movement and areas of consistently standing water that impact permafrost.

Coverage: Over hundreds of km up to several thousand km.

Minimum Mapping Unit (MMU)

National map sheet scales for initial planning of options, then route specific or site specific scales.

Accuracy / constraints

Deformation accuracy:  High relative accuracy within the area of interest is the most important factor.

Thematic accuracy: 80-90%.

Spatial accuracy: The goal would be 1 pixel, but depends on reference data used (i.e., range in metres corresponding to input data).

Accuracy assessment approach & quality control measures

Control sites with borehole sampling, field sampling, and manual surveys.

Frequency / timeliness

Observation frequency: deformation maps at a maximum of 24 days. 10 days preferred during freeze/thaw cycles.

Timeliness of delivery: It is important to capture permafrost status immediately prior to spring thaw and continue the monitoring until after the fall/winter freeze-up; however due to the potential for highly active areas a short revisit is required during the thaw/freeze timeframes. Seasonal maps can be completed during the winter season.


On-demand availability from commercial suppliers. New acquisitions can be requested globally.

Archived products are available for public search. Availability may be limited for specific dates.

Delivery / output format


Data type:

  • Digital or paper maps
  • Raster
  • Vector
  • Routing report

File format:

  • PDF files or plots
  • Geotiff
  • Shapefile or any other OGC standard file formats
  • Standard office formats


 Download product sheet.


Lead author:

Hatfield Consultants/C-CORE

Peer reviewer:

Peer Reviewer: OTM/TRE


Adlakha, Pierce

Document Title:

Permafrost Zone Stability/ frost heaving/discontinuous permafrost / Historical Surface Deformation

# of Pages:



Internal – Project consortium and science partners


External – ESA

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