The leaning houses of Dawson City

This photo, taken by Kulvir Gil, shows a pair of houses in Dawson City, Yukon Territories, Canada.

Dawson City exists in a subarctic climate, the sort of place with a lot of permafrost—soil that remains frozen year round. In order for permafrost to happen, the mean annual temperature has to be colder than 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). But, in Dawson City, as in other parts of the Arctic, climate change has brought with it warmer mean temperatures. That means melting permafrost, a problem that affects the structural integrity of buildings built on the once-solid ground.

Evidence of melting permafrost in the central Yukon comes from Ottawa's Carleton University. The school's geography department has been studying the issue for 20 years. Its research shows the ground temperature in and around Dawson is increasing dramatically. That melts the permafrost and destabilizes the ground supporting the critical infrastructure.

Northern Climate Exchange co-ordinator John Streiker says things will probably get worse for Dawson before they get better. "All of your infrastructure, anything that's buried – foundations of buildings, even road beds, things like that – they all push up and down," says Streiker.

Read the rest of this CBC radio transcript about permafrost melting in Dawson City.

The photo above comes from Canada's Climate Change, a Facebook page highlighting real-world examples of Canada's changing climate.

Thanks Rees Kassen!


  1. Not to provide fodder to annoying climate deniers, or ignoring the fact ongoing climate change makes this problem worse: but these buildings have been leaning some time and my understanding is it is a result of them having been built directly on the ground and not on pilings or pads (think of how deck posts are installed, but for houses). Permafrost does shift somewhat, and building directly on the ground makes this worse by helping to melt the permafrost somewhat (it is several feet down). I believe these houses have been leaning for decades.

    Would love to be corrected if I am wrong, and not arguing the science, but that picture should not be considered part of the ‘proof’. Source: I live in Inuvik, NT and read the plaque on the sides of those two leaning houses when we attended the Dawson City Music Festival (and saw Pokey LaFarge!) a couple weeks ago.

    For fun, here is the street view of an extreme case of building on stilts around the corner from my house. This apartment is scary!

  2. Also, it’s the Yukon Territory (singular, not plural).  Doctorow should have been all over this faux pas.

  3. Uhh, permafrost has been shifting stuff around for ever. And iirc (growing up in Alaska) it’s not the ‘permafrost’ (permanently frozen ground) that’s the problem – it’s the ground above it that freezes and thaws and rips your buildings in half (many houses outside of Fairbanks have turned into split-level houses over the years, much to their owner’s dismay).

    (Note – I am a firm believer in climate change, anyone who’s seen the retreat of glaciers in Alaska within their lifetime should be).

  4. A minor semantic point:
    Strictly speaking, when permafrost warms to the melting point of ice, it is the ice in it that melts, and not the earth material. Permafrost scientists use the term “thawing permafrost”. Consider frozen hamburger meat: the ice in the meat can melt or thaw, but we thaw the meat.

  5. Yeah…as a couple of other posters have pointed out, these “houses” do not illustrate infrastructure in Dawson City, Yukon being damaged by recent permafrost melting. These are historic buildings that slumped decades ago because their owners failed to build them on posts. Heating them resulted in the melting of the permafrost directly below and they sank. They are probably pretty stable now. They have been unoccupied for many years and are left unheated  year-round. There is a Parks Canada interpretive panel near the buildings explaining this, by the way. I think the folks who are running that site should get their examples from actual permafrost  researchers working in northern communities instead of from tourists who don’t really understand what they are looking at or who figure no one will notice or care when they use cool images that don’t actually support their arguments. 

    I am a firm believer in climate change, by the way.

  6. Way back around 1971 I was in Faro, Yukon, where a brand-new four-story hotel was condemned due to tilt. Apparently they didn’t put enough insulation in the foundation and it melted the permafrost.

  7. One of the reasons these buildings are so famous within Yukon:  a long-time and beloved and very good Yukon artist painted them years ago.  His name is Jim Robb.    

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