A report from the Canadian Climate Institute released Tuesday suggests that without immediate action and significant investment, critical infrastructure in the North faces irreparable damage due to climate change.
The Canadian Climate Institute is a federally funded, independent climate policy research organization. Dylan Clark is the senior research associate, as well as the lead author of the report.
He said one of the biggest challenges is the cost of construction and repairs of infrastructure.
“(Northern) infrastructure has been severely underfunded and is not meeting many people’s current basic needs,” said Clark from Vancouver.
“Temperatures are likely to rise at almost double the rate across much of northern Canada than they will in southern Canada, and that presents an added challenge … on top of this already kind of unsteady ground.”
Permafrost is the ground that remains below zero degrees Celsius for at least two consecutive years. When it thaws, the soil, gravel, and sand that was once frozen solid can start to shift, slump, and slide.
The report points to buildings shifting, runways warping and roads collapsing as permafrost thaws and extreme weather becomes more common.
More than half of the winter roads in the Northwest Territories specifically could become unusable in the next 30 years as temperatures warm, the report claims, and nearly all could be unusable by 2080.
Clark said whittling down any infrastructure-related expenses in the North is challenging.
For example, the report said the costs of road damage could exceed $50 million annually in the Northwest Territories and $70 million in Yukon — which is roughly two-thirds of current total spending on roads.
The boom and bust cycle of federal funding is also a challenge. As an example, he points to federal funding for buildings.
“We see that there is huge influxes of money and then that cash will dry up,” said Clark.
A sense of urgency in Tuktoyaktuk
Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Erwin Elias said his community is seeing the impact of climate change firsthand. Thawing permafrost is damaging the hamlet’s roads and buildings, and each year more of the community is slowly eroding into the Beaufort Sea because of more intense storms.
He said that he’s heard from scientists that 50 years from now, Tuktoyaktuk will be underwater because of rising sea levels.
“Fifty years is a blink of an eye, and I think there needs to be a strong urgency and support from the federal level and territory level as well.”
Elias said they’ve been in consultation with engineers over the past several years to design a plan to protect the shoreline. The next step is getting the application approved for funding.
The hamlet is seeking over $50 million from Ottawa to help protect against further erosion, which he said buys them some time.
“This is something that’s almost urgent for our community here where we have to get this project done in order to survive for, you know, the next 30 years.”
Elias said he’s concerned about the pace of the project, but is focusing on working hard to preserve the community for as long as he can.
Adaptation is key
Clark, the report’s lead author, said adaptation is the key.
“If governments choose to design and build proactively, they can save millions of dollars each year.”
A few adaptations listed in the report include building more gravel roads, and changing the design of homes to withstand climate change with technology like thermosyphons that helps keep the ground cool, or space-frame foundations.
Infrastructure Canada said the federal government has earmarked billions for adaptation, resilience, and disaster mitigation projects, including $3.4 billion from the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.
The Canadian Climate Institute’s report concludes with four recommendations. They include new federal funding, information regarding Northern-relevant climate risks to infrastructure, innovative building and repair strategies, and requiring all levels of government to regulate and update policies to ensure that new infrastructure is resilient in the face of climate change.