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With about half of its landmass underlain by frozen soils, Canada can be considered a "permafrost nation", yet little attention has been given to what this means in term of how the natural geosystems and ecosystems of the Canadian North are structured and function, and how the rapid economic development of the North can take place in a sustainable fashion on these permafrost systems, now in rapid transition. At a planetary scale, permafrost lands occupy a vast area of the circumpolar North, and understanding their system properties is essential to an integrated understanding of the Earth geosphere-biosphere, which itself is now in overall rapid transition. Given the globally significant stocks of organic carbon currently locked in permafrost soils, there is an urgent need to understand their potential to be released as greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. ADAPT will develop conceptual models of the physical and biological processes across Arctic landscapes that can be used as a framework for understanding what makes these systems so critical to the Earth System.

The circumpolar North is experiencing a boom in development and resource exploitation. In Canada, scarcely a week goes by without another major announcement of business expansion in the North, in part driven by the rising demand for raw materials on international markets. This economic development, particularly the extraction of minerals and oil and gas, is now as important driving factors of change as climate warming, although such warming makes resources more easily accessible. It creates needs for roads, airports, ports, runways, railways and camps. Simultaneously, the Inuit communities are in critical need for more housing and municipal expansion. The communities want to be partners with industrial development over their territories and at the same time they will fight for environmental protection. Both the change in climate and the building of infrastructure affect the permafrost, whereas climate warming makes the infrastructures at risk of being damaged.

The infrastructure and resources for Canadian Arctic communities, from drinking water and exploited wildlife to runways, roads and housing, critically depend upon the state of the permafrost. Additionally, maintaining Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic requires that airports, sea ports, roads, and federal and territorial buildings be well adapted to dynamic permafrost conditions throughout the North. The ADAPT framework aims to underpin cold regions science and engineering, and to allow Canada and other circumpolar nations to formulate integrated (rather than piecemeal) geo-ecosystem management strategies for the North in this period of rapid development and environmental change.