Warming, a double-edged sword for northern transportation: study

“Much of the landscape will become less accessible“


Ice roads like this well-travelled one from Cambridge Bay to Newmont's Hope Bay mine may be in trouble as the Arctic climate warms. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Ice roads like this well-travelled one from Cambridge Bay to Newmont’s Hope Bay mine may be in trouble as the Arctic climate warms. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Postmedia News

The Northwest Passage will not open up to shipping anytime soon, according to a study that warns global warming is a double-edged sword for northern transportation.

“And Canada is going to be feeling the harsh edge of the sword more strongly than other Arctic states,” says Scott Stephenson, lead author of the study that forecasts that the Northwest Passage will be the last Arctic shipping route to become ice free.

It also predicts huge swaths of Canada’s landscape will become inaccessible by road by mid-century.

The implications could be “profoundly negative” for remote communities and mining, energy and timber operations that now depend on winter ice roads, says the study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, that was published May 29 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The Tibbitt-Contwoyto “diamond road” in the Northwest Territories, said to be the world’s most lucrative ice road, is projected to lose about 17 per cent of its eight to 10 week operating season by 2020.

And 400,000 square kilometres of Canada — most of it in the southern NWT and the northern Prairie provinces — is predicted to become inaccessible by road by mid-century because of milder winters and deeper snow will prevent the ground from freezing solid.

“This study would suggest that Canada has more to lose that it realizes,” senior author Laurence Smith, a UCLA climate researcher, said in a telephone interview.

“Popular conception has it that the Arctic is thawing, that it is opening up, and we’ll go in there and get the resources,” he says. “This study shows it is not as simple as that. In fact much of the landscape will become less accessible.“

The researchers used climate models and data on sea ice, land cover and topography to assess how Arctic transportation will change as temperatures rise due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere through the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

The study says winter roads, built over frozen lakes and land, will be a major casualty in all eight Arctic countries— Canada, Finland, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Canada and Russia will be hit hardest because they are so big.

Remote communities that rely on winter roads will have to rely more on air cargo, which will “dramatically” increase the costs of food and supplies, says Stephenson.

“When the winter roads go out you can tell at the cash register,” he says.

The 400,000 square kilometres that Canada is projected to lose access to is a huge area “with all kinds of untapped potential,“ says Smith.

While building permanent roads might be an option in some areas, the costs will be high. Existing mines, energy and timber operations will suffer and some will likely shut down as transportation costs soar.

“It’s significant on multiple fronts.

“And keep in mind this [400,000 sq. km. loss] is just up to mid-century,” he says.

Temperatures are expected to keep climbing well beyond 2050, making more of Canada’s soggy northern landscapes inaccessible by land vehicles.

Smith says the “the other surprise for Canada is that the Northwest Passage may not be worth all the hype and attention that gets devoted to it.”

The passage through Canada’s Arctic islands is in one of coldest parts of Arctic, where water circulation is not as “dynamic” as other areas, he says.

“It’ll be one of the last places to open up,” says Smith. “It will be easier to go over the North Pole than through the Northwest Passage.”

The study predicts that by 2050 three other Arctic shipping routes will be “fully accessible” from July to September to “Type A” vessels, with limited ice-breaking capability: The “North Pole” route from the Netherlands to Alaska’s Bering Strait; the “Northern Sea” route along the Russian Coast: and the “Arctic Bridge” from Churchill, Man., through Hudson Bay, down past the southern tip of Greenland and up to northern Europe and Russia.

Canada, like the other northern countries, will have increased access to Arctic waters and fisheries and resources in coming decades, says the study that points to the need for enhanced search and recue capabilities and environmental protection.

As for the projected loss of land access, Smith says “there’s not much you can do other than to get the world and yourselves to reduce carbon emissions.”

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