Infrastructure Lands and Environment

Climate roadblocks: Warming temperatures pose threats to Northern roads

Roadways may not seem high on the list of things affected by climate change, but in Canada’s Northern regions, rising temperatures are making it hard to support such critical infrastructure.

Warmer weather is shortening the time Northerners can access ice and winter roads. With many Northern communities relying on these annual networks for necessities like food, fuel, and building materials, some say immediate action is necessary.

The issue received wide attention in early January when Isadore Day, the Ontario regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, called for action on building permanent roads. The issue involves more than just re-supplying communities with essentials, Day said; the remoteness of a community can contribute to health and social issues like depression and rising costs of living.

“What seems to amplify, or add to that issue, is the issue of climate change,” the chief told Northern Public Affairs. “These roads are very important in keeping families and communities together.”

Map of the Northwest Territories' road system. Winter roads are marked in blue. Credit: GNWT Department of Transportation

Map of the Northwest Territories’ winter road system. Credit: GNWT Department of Transportation

While Ontario has Canada’s largest winter road network, with more than 3,000 kilometres constructed each year, the Northwest Territories also operates an extensive network of seasonal roads.

Eddie Erasmus, the Grand Chief of the Tłįcho Government, noted his people have been using these systems for generations. Before there were roads, there were dog team trails, he said.

“We rely on these roads to make sure that our people can continue to visit each other, and spend time on the land.”

The current network connects all four of the Tłįcho communities—Behchokǫ̀, Gamètì, Wekweètì, and Whatì.

“We rely on these roads to make sure that our people can continue to visit each other, and spend time on the land,” Erasmus said.

But a warm November and December delayed the usual early-January construction period. Erasmus said the shorter season means a rise in the cost of living. Flying becomes the only option, not only for bringing in food and supplies, but for visiting friends and family.

“Due to global warming,” the Grand Chief said, “it becomes harder and more expensive to maintain winter roads.”

The territory’s transportation department is assisting the Tłįcho Government in speeding up the road building process.

Deputy Transportation Minister Russell Neudorf assures the department is “taking the best advantage of winter” it can. Spray ice technology is being used to quicken the freezing process, and the government has already built bridges on many stream crossings that no longer freeze sufficiently.

“We’ve gotten more aggressive,” Neudorf said. “Any time that a winter road is late coming in we certainly are aware, from a community perspective, what that means.”

Neudorf also noted these efforts are somewhat part of a transition phase. Work is underway to make transportation corridors in the NWT, including the one serving Tłįcho communities, more accessible year-round.

“If you have an all-weather road, you don’t think about these things,” he said.

Map of the proposed all-weather road to the Tlicho community of Whati in the Northwest Territories. Credit: GNWT Department of Transportation

Map of the proposed all-weather road to the Tlicho community of Whati in the Northwest Territories. Credit: GNWT Department of Transportation

The Tłįcho Government and the Government of the Northwest Territories have embarked on a project to link an all-weather road to Whatì from the Yellowknife highway.

“Any time that a winter road is late coming in we certainly are aware, from a community perspective, what that means.”

Erasmus said the prospect of a permanent road presents an economic opportunity for the Tłįcho people. The route would create access to a potential mine and has the potential to open up job opportunities for the First Nation.

Investments like the permanent road, he said, are “modern tools” the Tłįcho Government can use to adapt to warming temperature and ensure “our traditional language, culture, and way of life continues to be strong.”

But even permanent, all-weather roads present challenges for the North. The Yukon does not operate any public winter roads, but officials are monitoring the impacts changing weather is having on permafrost below existing highways.

According to Paul Murchison, Highway and Public Works’ director of transportation engineering in Yukon, data shows permafrost temperatures are much higher underneath a highway than the ground beside it. Paired with climate change, this means even faster melting.

“[There is] the potential that the damage to the highway will be much greater because there may be accelerated permafrost degradation,” he said.

Going forward, he said, this might have to be a consideration for future investments in Yukon’s highways.◉


Photo credit: Ian Mackenzie (CC)

Editor’s note: This piece marks the end of Arturo’s regular contribution to Northern Public Affairs. We’d like to thank Arturo for his hard work and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavours.

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