Limited transportation infrastructure facing threats in northern Canada

The bridge across the West Channel of the Hay River, which flooded in mid-May, is shown in Hay River, N.W.T., on Oct. 26. (Emily Blake/The Canadian Press)

By Emily Blake · The Canadian Press

Ice forming later, breaking earlier

Andrew Arreak says travelling on the ice — the main highway in Canada’s Arctic — provides access to the land and food, connects communities and is part of Inuit identity. But climate change is making ice travel less predictable.

“I’m noticing that the ice is forming a little later each year and breaking off a little earlier each year,” said Arreak of Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Arreak is one of many Indigenous northerners finding ways to adapt. He works with SmartICE, an organization that integrates Inuit traditional knowledge with modern technology to better inform decisions on ice travel in several northern communities.

When he’s on the ice, he tows a “smart qamutiik,” an Inuit sled with a sensor measuring ice thickness. A “smart buoy” inserted into the ice measures the temperatures of air, snow, ice and water.

SmartICE has also begun looking at satellite imagery to produce ice hazard maps as part of a pilot project started last winter in the Nunavut communities of Pond Inlet and Gjoa Haven and in Nain, the northernmost permanent settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“People here in the community have been really excited about it and have been asking when the next map will be available,” Arreak said.

Across the North, already underdeveloped transportation networks needed for access to resources, medical care and travel face increasing threats due to climate warming happening nearly three times faster than the global average.

Many northern communities and mining operations rely on winter roads for annual supplies of fuel, construction materials and other goods too expensive to transport by air. Climate change is reducing the amount of time these roads can remain open.

A report published by the Canadian Climate Change Institute in June says more than half of northern winter roads could become unstable in the next 30 years. It predicts the cost of road damage from climate change could exceed $70 million annually in Yukon and $50 million in the Northwest Territories if adaptation measures aren’t taken.

In the winter, many N.W.T. communities are only accessible by plane or by driving on a winter road or ice highway, such as this one near Aklavik, N.W.T. In the summer, the communities are accessible by plane or boat. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

Northern Canada has long had a significant infrastructure gap compared to the southern part of the country. Permafrost degradation, landslides, flooding and wildfires, among other climate change impacts, are only exacerbating the problem.

“Infrastructure across the North has been severely underfunded for decades,” said Dylan Clark, lead author of the report. “It’s that kind of gap that is making, in part, communities across Northern Canada much more vulnerable.”

The report examines adaptation measures, including reinforcing the base layers of roads and runways, cooling embankments, excavating permafrost, relocating roads and building gravel rather than paved runways.

Clark said there are huge cost savings associated with climate mitigation and adaptation measures.

“More resources and funding are clearly needed here. We are talking about a large investment up front, but it’s actually the more cost-effective approach here than doing nothing.”

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road is one of the world’s longest heavy-haul ice roads, stretching roughly 400 kilometres and servicing three N.W.T. diamond mines.

“If there was no winter road, there would be no diamond mines,” said Barry Henkel, director of the winter road.

The ice must be at least 73 centimetres thick before it can open and 99 centimetres for full load capacity.

A 2021 study from the American Meteorological Society says global warming of 2 C could tip the road into needing costly adaptation measures. That could mean replacing river crossings with structural bridges, building all-weather road segments in problem areas, relocating over-ice segments to land, improving ice monitoring and spraying ice to increase thickness.

Climate change can affect all-season roads, too, with serious consequences for northern communities with only one road in and out.

Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott said a heavy snowpack led to significant landslides this year, which caused road closures. The city had to increase its snow removal budget by $450,000.

“We need to do our effort in reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also being able to adapt and be resilient,” she said.

Debris from a landslide that took place April 30 in Whitehorse. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

Fabrice Calmels, research chair in permafrost and geoscience at Yukon University, has been involved with several projects monitoring sections of the Alaska and Dempster Highways vulnerable to climate change. Thermosiphons, which are gas-filled tubes that allow heat to escape the ground and keep permafrost cold, were installed on a section of the Alaska Highway outside Beaver Creek.

“It’s all kinds of issues, all kinds of what we call geohazards that are impacting the highway, and there is no single solution,” he said.

Permafrost thaw and extreme weather are also warping and cracking runways. Many northern communities rely heavily on air travel and in some cases it is the only year-round mode of transportation.

The N.W.T. and federal governments are spending $22 million to protect Inuvik’s airport from climate change and reduce ground settlements from permafrost thaw. That includes widening the runway and taxi embankments, repairing the surface and improving drainage.

A new $300-million airport opened in Iqaluit in August 2017, with upgrades including extensive repairs due to permafrost thaw.

Nunavut is also developing proposals to fix severe cracking on the runway at Rankin Inlet’s airport, said assistant deputy transportation minister John Hawkins.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the department recognizes the critical role northern transportation corridors play in “Canada’s economic lifeline” and is working to improve understanding of the risks posed by climate change.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Related stories from around the North: 

CanadaPotential Canadian Northern Corridor would present unique security challenges and opportunities, say researchers, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Thawing permafrost melts ground under homes and around Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: 30–50% of critical northern infrastructure could be at high risk by 2050 due to warming, says study, Eye on the Arctic

United States: U.S. Navy to build airport infrastructure in North Norway to meet upped Russian submarine presence, The Independent Barents Observer

One thought on “Limited transportation infrastructure facing threats in northern Canada

  • Wednesday, January 18, 2023 at 12:12

    Quality transport and logistics management must be in place even in such extreme situations. Clearly, additional management tools are needed here, as climate change may also affect all-season roads, with serious consequences for northern communities where there is only one road in and out.

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