Limited transportation infrastructure at risk in northern Canada – Eye on the Arctic

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The bridge across the West Channel of the Hay River, which was flooded in mid-May, is shown in Hay River, Northwest Territories on October 26. (Emily Blake/The Canadian Press)

By Emily Blake · The Canadian Press

Ice forms later, breaks earlier

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

“I notice the ice forming a little later each year and breaking away a little earlier each year,” said Arreak of Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

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

When he is on the ice, he tows an “intelligent qamutiik”, an Inuit sled equipped with a sensor that measures the thickness of the ice. A “smart buoy” embedded in the ice measures air, snow, ice and water temperatures.

SmartICE has also begun examining satellite imagery to produce ice hazard maps as part of a pilot project launched last winter in the Nunavut communities of Pond Inlet and Gjoa Haven and in Nain, the settlement most northern permanent residence in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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

Across the North, the already underdeveloped transportation networks needed to access resources, medical care and travel are facing increasing threats due to global warming occurring nearly three times faster than average. world.

Many northern communities and mining operations depend on winter roads for their annual supply of fuel, building materials and other goods that are too expensive to airlift. Climate change is reducing the length of time these roads can stay open.

A report released by the Canadian Climate Change Institute in June indicates that more than half of northern winter roads could become unstable over the next 30 years. It predicts that the cost of road damage caused by climate change could exceed $70 million a year in the Yukon and $50 million in the Northwest Territories if adaptation measures are not taken.

In winter, many communities in the NWT. are only accessible by plane or by car on a winter road or ice highway, like this one near Aklavik, NWT. In the summer, the communities are accessible by plane or boat. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

Canada’s north has long had a significant infrastructure deficit compared to the country’s south. Permafrost degradation, landslides, floods and wildfires, among other impacts of climate change, only exacerbate the problem.

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

The report examines adaptation measures, including strengthening road and track base layers, cooling embankments, excavating permafrost, relocating roads, and constructing gravel rather than paved tracks.

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

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

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road is one of the longest heavy haul ice roads in the world, stretching approximately 400 kilometers and serving three diamond mines in the Northwest Territories.

“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 centimeters thick before it can open and 99 centimeters for full load capacity.

A 2021 study by the American Meteorological Society indicates that global warming of 2 C could tip the road to costly adaptation measures. This could mean replacing river crossings with structural bridges, building all-weather road segments in problem areas, moving segments over the ice to land, improving ice monitoring and spraying ice to increase the ‘thickness.

Climate change can also affect all-weather roads, with serious consequences for northern communities that have only one in-and-out route.

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

“We have to make our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also be able to adapt and be resilient,” she said.

Debris from an April 30 landslide in Whitehorse. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio Canada)

Fabrice Calmels, Research Chair in Permafrost and Geosciences at Yukon University, has been involved in several projects monitoring sections of the Alaska and Dempster highways vulnerable to climate change. Thermosyphons, which are gas-filled tubes that allow heat to escape from the ground and keep the permafrost cold, have been 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 impact the highway, and there’s no one solution,” he said.

Permafrost thaw and extreme weather conditions also deform and crack runways. Many northern communities rely heavily on air transportation, and in some cases it is the only mode of transportation year-round.

The governments of the Northwest Territories and the federal government are spending $22 million to protect the Inuvik airport from climate change and reduce ground settlement caused by thawing permafrost. This includes widening the taxiway and embankments, repairing the surface and improving drainage.

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

Nunavut is also developing proposals to repair severe cracks in the runway at Rankin Inlet Airport, Assistant Deputy Minister of Transportation John Hawkins said.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada says 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 Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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