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True North: Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change in Northern Canada

3.0 Northern Infrastructure Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change

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This chapter discusses the vulnerability of northern physical infrastructure and the importance of climate change adaptation in the context of the key roles that infrastructure systems play in securing the region?s long-term sustainability. It reviews aspects of northern infrastructure that make it sensitive to the impacts of climate change; summarizes the likely implications of climate change for northern infrastructure; and discusses potential adaptation needs. Our focus is on five categories of infrastructure: transportation, buildings, communications, energy, and containment structures for storing waste rock and tailings from mining operations. The chapter draws from reviews of publicly available literature and qualitative research commissioned by the NRTEE, including information gathered from stakeholder workshops.

3.1 Key Attributes of Northern Infrastructure

Infrastructure systems in Canada?s North are uniquely vulnerable compared to southern counterparts. Permafrost and other ice regimes figure heavily into infrastructure design, construction, and maintenance. Construction and operating costs are high due to distance and isolation plus extreme cold.

Infrastructure deteriorates rapidly in extreme environments. Experience in Canada?s North shows that, even after a brief interruption in operation, reopening infrastructure tends to be costly. The existing infrastructure deficit, the lack of options and ?backups? in infrastructure services, and capacity constraints in the form of finances and human resources are all other pressures.

A changing climate presents additional challenges to the design, development, and management of infrastructure in the North and elsewhere in Canada. Physical infrastructure is ?climate sensitive? ? designed, built, and operated to provide useful service over decades within a prescribed range of sitespecific climate and environmental conditions. The current stock of physical infrastructure and that built in the next few decades will be subject to climate conditions outside of historical experience, with changes likely intensifying over time. All infrastructure systems carry some risk of failure. However, unanticipated and rapid changes in their operating environment can increase this risk and overwhelm systems? coping capacity, with related financial losses, health and safety risks, and impacts on ecosystems.

Maintaining and enhancing access to reliable infrastructure that provides mobility, shelter, connectivity, power, and protection from toxic industrial waste is at the core of sustainable regional development and northern security. The complex interactions between climate change, growth of market-based economies, evolving governance regimes, and other factors influencing northerners? capacity to adapt to change, will shape the relative success of efforts to improve infrastructure systems in Canada?s North. These efforts are unlikely to prioritize climate change adaptation above everything else, making it important to seek measures that address multiple objectives that contribute to resilience, such as efficient use of energy and shortening of supply lines.

In Canada?s North and elsewhere, physical infrastructure exhibits three characteristics that are relevant to climate change adaptation: a generally long life, a fixed location, and complex design and operations. Design criteria establish the expected useful service life of infrastructure and its tolerance levels to climate-related events (e.g., 1-in-100-year flood). But a range of factors influences its actual useful life. These include use, modifications, maintenance, and other factors that are under the control of decision makers. External factors include regulations and technological advances that force or promote early obsolescence. The high capital costs of infrastructure and the need to design infrastructure in light of site-specific conditions essentially means that infrastructure is fixed once it is built, and is thereby locked in to its surroundings. Meeting societal expectations to avoid loss of life and property damage from infrastructure failure increases the complexity of its design and operations. Many infrastructure systems are large installations, consisting of parts built at different periods and where tolerance for failure may have been poorly defined, all of which makes their operations complex.

The lack of system ?redundancies? or backups and isolation of many communities are key features that differentiate infrastructure systems in Canada?s North from those of more densely populated parts of the south. In the event of infrastructure failure, some northern communities may not have access to backups or alternatives that many southern communities take for granted, such as an alternate road, a second hospital, and grid connectivity to other power stations. This lack of options can lead to service interruptions, lost productivity, and inability to meet basic needs. For example, in January 2008, a seven-day blizzard in Nunavut?s Kivalliq region left store shelves bare in three communities because airports had to shut down. Through reliance on social networks and other coping strategies, northerners have learned to adjust to inconveniences or emergencies linked to interruptions of infrastructure services. However, exposure to constant change and multiple sources of stress over the long-term could undermine these types of coping strategies.

The relatively sparse population, remote geography, weather-dependent construction season, and high costs of labour and materials make northern infrastructure construction and maintenance a costly undertaking. Constraints in capacity that prevent timely maintenance and replacement of infrastructure can also contribute to long-term costs. For example, a lack of local capacity to maintain or repair technical equipment in some communities means that maintenance may occur less regularly than should be the case. Failures can result in prolonged interruptions in service partly due to the limited supply of technical expertise. In many cases, construction material comes from outside the region, as does specialized equipment. Due to either climate-related phenomena, regulatory changes, or increased rates of use, enhanced maintenance efforts add to the cost of services delivered by infrastructure. In some cases, service continuity is a business driver and changes in operating environments, including changes in weather patterns, can provide an incentive to make incremental adjustments in infrastructure management.

Much of the infrastructure in Canada?s North relies on permafrost, snow, and ice for its stability and utility (see Box 2 and Box 3). For example, containment structures, which protect the environment from toxic mine tailings and other materials, often rely on the integrity of permafrost to prevent the movement of toxic mine waste and industrial process waters. Because frozen earth material, such as rock, sediment, and organic matter, has a stronger load-bearing capacity relative to non-frozen ground, building design is typically based on preserving frozen conditions or limiting thaw. However, about half of Canada?s permafrost zones are moderately or highly sensitive to thawing in warmer climate conditions, terrain with high water content being particularly susceptible to collapse if disturbed. ?Warm? permafrost underlies areas of major industrial development, such as the Mackenzie Basin.

Other frozen systems are also important. For example, winter roads built over frozen lakes and rivers serve many remote communities and mineral exploration camps or mines, particularly in the Northwest Territories.

BOX 2: Cold climates present engineering challenges and lead to creative solutions

In Canada?s North, accounting for the physical state of permafrost and other frozen systems in the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure is an engineering challenge, and experience has led to a variety of practices and technologies adapted to cold climates. Frozen ground provides a stable surface for buildings, roads and airstrips, pipelines, transmission towers, and for waste containment. In design, building, and maintenance protocols, northern engineering firms rely on environmental data, such as weather and climate data, and customized climatic design values supplied by the Government of Canada (Environment Canada). Often, practitioners make adjustments to account for observed trends, assumptions about expected environmental changes, and related site-specific implications for permafrost and ice systems. Engineering strategies to date favour maintaining frozen conditions and limiting thaw in order to constrain infrastructure movement to within tolerable levels. The choice of foundation and overall design is therefore a function of both infrastructure loads and thermal conditions of the ground.

Aside from the choice of foundation, such as the use of shallow versus deep foundations, the application of ?thermosyphons? supports infrastructure integrity. This technology is effectively a heat exchanger, transferring heat from the ground to the surface, ensuring stability of frozen conditions for different types of infrastructure. Comprehensive technical guidance to determine the optimal use of thermosyphons or specific standards to meet do not yet exist. Engineers operating in the North typically provide these kind of recommendations in conducting site-specific geotechnical studies. Since 1985, over 100 thermosyphon systems have been installed in Canada?s North, including industrial, commercial, and institutional applications, such as in Aurora College (Inuvik, Northwest Territories) and Cambridge Bay School (Cambridge Bay, Nunavut). A 2008 national engineering vulnerability assessment by Engineers Canada included a case study exploring the performance of thermosyphon systems across ten foundation sites in the Northwest Territories. They concluded that these installations are likely to be resilient to warming in the near-term contingent on factors such as proper maintenance, monitoring, and rates of future climate warming.

Many other factors influence engineering practices and related choices in Canada?s North. These include the extreme cold conditions that infrastructure and embodied construction materials must withstand, health and safety of workers, the short construction season, challenges of transporting construction material, delays in procuring specialized equipment, and an undersupply of labour. Entrepreneurial initiatives ? corporations like Nuna Logistics and the recently established Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Centre ? are turning technical and supply-chain challenges into opportunities. The Canadian Institute of Planners highlighted practices and new technologies for transport and logistics in cold climates in its June 2009 national conference.

3.2 Northern Infrastructure Categories

The NRTEE program explored five categories of infrastructure: transportation, buildings, communications, energy, and containment structures for storing waste rock and tailings from mining operations. These types of infrastructure are, in some cases, lifelines for northern communities, providing the basic services of mobility, shelter, connectivity, power, and protection from pollution. Combined, these services also enable effective responses to emergencies. Table 11 provides a breakdown of each category by territory, compiled from various sources. What follows is a brief description of the types of infrastructure studied, including issues with the current stock and future prospects.

Transportation: Transportation infrastructure varies considerably across the three territories, reflecting important historical, geographic, and demographic differences. Yukon has the most developed and expansive permanent road network of the territories, providing all-weather road access to all communities but one. The road network in the Northwest Territories includes all-weather roads and winter roads complemented by vehicle ferries and ice crossings. In Nunavut, nearly all travel between communities within the territory and to external locations is via air transport, whereas goods provision and cargo transport is by vessel or barge. Geographic remoteness and extreme cold conditions make it costly to build and operate transportation infrastructure in the region, with a clear recognition at the territorial level that significant upgrading needs to take place to meet existing demand, to keep pace with and even facilitate resource development, and to prepare for emerging issues linked to international sovereignty interests. The proposed Bathurst Inlet Port and Road and the Nunavut-Manitoba Road projects would boost the capacity to service mines, and provide alternative and shorter routes for resupply of fuel and goods to communities in the area.[43]

"Northern safety, security, and environmental integrity are dependant upon transportation infrastructure. Currently this infrastructure is completely inadequate to respond to environmental emergencies, natural disasters, non-environmental accidents, and increasing threats to Canada?s sovereignty."
- Governments of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, 2008. A Multi-Modal Transportation Blueprint for the North.

Buildings: A deficit of housing and public buildings currently exists in Canada?s North. The level of overcrowding in private dwellings, measured as a percentage of dwellings with over one person per room, is significantly higher in Nunavut and in the Northwest Territories than in Canada as a whole (18 per cent, 4.6 per cent, and 1.5 per cent, respectively).[44] The level of reported disrepair of household dwellings in the region is also remarkable. In Canada as a whole, about one in 13 occupied dwellings requires major repairs; in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, those numbers are one in 7, one in 6, and one in 5. New construction projects and refurbishments are likely to take place over the next few decades driven by a combination of necessary retirement of capital stock, energy costs, demographic trends, and projected and potential resource development. These trends will likely generate a critical need for constructing a range of buildings ? from homes and schools, to community centres, airport terminals, and hospitals. Energy costs are a big driver for current refurbishments in Yukon, including upgrades in building envelopes and fuel substitutions for space heating focusing on biomass.

Communications: Communications infrastructure contributes to the effective delivery of services and provides connectivity to the outside world. For a small community such as Gjoa Haven (Nunavut), the latter aspect of this type of infrastructure makes it critical. Northwestel, a private company, is the primary provider of communications services in Canada?s North (as well as twelve northern communities of British Columbia and Alberta) and the owner of all communications infrastructure. Enhancing communications infrastructure and related services has the potential to overcome geographic barriers in providing access to knowledge, information, and in developing skills. These are key ingredients for participation in a knowledge-based economy.[45] The recent establishment of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation indicates a growing recognition of the need to support service expansion and related development of this infrastructure type. It is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing access to reliable and affordable broadband services across the territory.[46]

?Soil erosion is a big issue, resulting in ? for example ? the failure of foundations. We are experiencing increases in engineering costs and the climate challenges ratchet up. We are also seeing a lot more in the way of infrastructure failure rates. If these trends continue and intensify, we may have to totally change the foundation systems we use.?
?Participant at October 2007 NRTEE program meeting in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut

Table 11: Inventory of northern infrastructure illustrating unique regional traits
Infrastructure type Yukon Northwest Territories Nunavut
All-weather roads 2008 (length) 4,800 km With the exception of the most northerly community (Old Crow) all communities are connected to the road system 2,200 km About 20% of residents have year-round highway access; 65% of residents currently lack highway access for two months out of the year during the seasonal transition between ferry service and ice crossings; 13% of residents rely on winter roads for land-based transportation; the rest do not have access at all With the exception of a 21-km road between the mining community of Nanisivik and Arctic Bay, no road infrastructure exists to link communities in this territory
Winter roads 2008 (length) No major winter roads 1,450 km of public winter roads Over 570 km of private winter roads for oil and gas development and mine resupply Few private winter roads for mine resupply
Airports 2008 (#) 29 ( 13 airports and 16 aerodromes) The Yukon government operates all facilities 27 community-based airports plus several privately-operated air strips All communities (26) rely on air transportation system for essential needs. Only two airports have paved runways
Marine 2008 No existing marine infrastructure (Alaska ports are strategic link) Rail / truck to barge marine resupply system for communities and industrial operations. Four communities depend on this resupply system for bulk commodities. Infrastructure is privately owned All communities have beach landing sites. The sole port is not connected to a community
Housing 2006 (# of private dwellings) 12,610 ~30% tenancy 14,235 ~50% tenancy 7,855 ~80% tenancy
Microwave radio (length), fibre optic cable (length), satellite (# of communities) Northwestel, a private company, is the primary service provider and owner of communications infrastructure. Infrastructure includes a 7,354 km network of microwave radio, 3,250 km network of fibre optic cable serving southern Yukon and Northwest Territories, and satellite services covering 43 communities (all communities in Nunavut plus northern and eastern communities in the Northwest Territories)
Hydro-electric dams 4 large dams 5 large dams ~75% of energy generation comes from this source Not applicable (all electricity is from fossil fuel imports)
Diesel facilities 19 26 27 stand-alone diesel plants in 25 communities; Qulliq Energy Corporation is the provider (owned by the Government of Nunavut)
Energy transmission 2 electricity transmission lines; 1 natural gas pipeline originating in the Northwest Territories, picking up gas from 3 Yukon wells, and taking gas into British Columbia 2 electricity transmission lines 1 major oil pipeline from Norman Wells to Alberta Not applicable
Operating mines (for simplicity, # of containment structure corresponds to # of mines) 1 4 1 under construction
Closed (for simplicity, # of containment structure corresponds to # of mines) 13 32-33 6

Sources: Northern Connections (2008); Northwestel (2007); Statistics Canada ? Census 2006 ? Community Profiles; Nunavut Housing Corporation (2004); Council of the Federation (2007) ? Energy Transmission and Generation; Government of Yukon ? Energy Solutions Centre; M. Burke, Yukon Geological Survey; R. Silke, Northwest Territories and Nunavut Chamber of Mines; and, Northwest Territories Geoscience Office (2008).

Energy: Energy generation in the three territories comes from a limited number of sources. Hydroelectric generation is the dominant source of energy production in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, with the balance coming from diesel and natural gas?fired units. Nunavut depends almost entirely on imported oil, diesel, and other fossil fuels for its energy needs. Continued dependence on these sources for electricity needs is likely, as connecting distant communities to a central electricity system is cost-prohibitive. In northern communities where diesel fuel is the source of all electrical power, the integrity of both the generating plant and its fuel supply depot are critical to human health and safety. Wind and solar power account for a minimal amount of the power generated in Canada?s North, although a Government of Canada program is in place to support growth in small-scale renewables.[47] Exploring options for increasing the uptake of renewable energy sources is also part of territories? energy strategies.[48] The northern energy infrastructure system also includes under- and above-ground fuel containers, electricity transmission lines and isolated distribution systems, and oil and natural gas pipelines in Yukon and Northwest Territories. Box 3 below briefly discusses the challenges in planning, designing, building and maintaining linear structures across permafrost terrain. Northern energy infrastructure is likely to grow in the future, however, largely to export oil, gas, and electricity to southern markets (see Chapter 2).

BOX 3: Unstable permafrost is a risk to linear structures such as energy pipelines

Designing, building, and maintaining linear structures such as energy pipelines on permafrost terrain presents major challenges and related economic, environmental, and social risks. Originally considered in the 1970s, proponents of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project broke new technical ground in pipeline design, construction, and operations. Some of the technical approaches were then integrated in the Norman Wells pipeline project, Canada?s first energy pipeline buried in permafrost terrain.

Permafrost is problematic for a couple of reasons. Permafrost is insulated by an "active layer" of soil and organic matter that melts every summer and freezes in the winter. Pipeline construction and operation has the potential of disturbing this layer, transferring heat, and causing progressively more ponding, melting, and erosion with each successive summer. Disturbance can be a result of digging the trench to lay down the pipeline in the first place. Building in winter and insulating the pipeline trench with material such as wood chips are measures to address this problem. A pipeline operating at normal temperatures would also radiate heat to the surrounding frozen ground. Chilling the hydrocarbon to temperatures below zero is a way to address the heat transfer issue, and is the approach used in the Norman Wells pipeline.

Ensuring pipeline integrity is also a challenge. Chilling the hydrocarbon, for example, is a problem for portions of pipelines underlain by discontinuous permafrost and unfrozen areas. In these parts, the effect of a chilled pipeline would be to gather moisture and cause ice-lensing, exerting pressure on the pipeline itself (frost heave) and increasing the possibility of pipeline fracture. In the case of Norman Wells, significant effort has gone into limiting frost heave across transitions between frozen and unfrozen terrain.

Sources: Natural Resources Canada ? Geological Survey of Canada ? Norman Wells Pipeline Research (http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/permafrost/pipeline_e.php). Page (1986).

Containment structures: Earth dams ? containment structures that lie in natural depressions ? serve several functions throughout the lifecycle of mining operations, including holding mine tailings and industrial waste, protecting water supplies, and retaining solid tailings after mine closure.[49] In cases where dams rest on permafrost, thawing could endanger the dam?s foundation and lead to seepage; changes in precipitation, both in averages and extremes, also affect the proper functioning of these structures. Compromised structures present significant social and environmental risks given the toxic nature of some of their contents. Most at risk are structures associated with mines that have already closed, because there is less flexibility in managing them. New containment structures follow the opening of new mines. Given the extensive exploration underway in all three territories and growing global demand for commodities, the numbers of this infrastructure type are likely to increase markedly over the next few years. Across Canada?s North, twelve mining projects are currently under regulatory review, and over 200 are in the exploration phase.

3.3 Assessing Vulnerability of Northern Infrastructure and Communities

The direct impacts of climate change can significantly affect the design, maintenance, and overall management of infrastructure in Canada?s North. Direct impacts include warmer temperatures; changes in amount, timing, and type of precipitation; reduced sea ice; changes in streamflow patterns; permafrost degradation and changes to other ice systems; and, enhanced coastal erosion and storminess. As noted earlier, permafrost conditions greatly influence the choice of foundation systems. Addressing warming and degradation of permafrost over time involves designing the system to be able to withstand the expected conditions and building in the flexibility to make adjustments over time, such as the refurbishment of artificial cooling technologies or building in the ability to re-level structures in response to differential settling. Other options include accepting suboptimal performance and premature retirement of the structure.

Just to illustrate further, consider the interaction between the effects of climate change on heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and operational and management choices. Warmer temperatures may require the introduction of cooling systems in some buildings, adding to the costs of construction and operations as well as increasing summer-time energy demand. In large buildings where responsibility over components of the building system lies with many parties, design decisions, if not taken holistically, may lead to suboptimal outcomes. More intense and frequent precipitation and wind events also influence decisions on structural design and building materials, in turn affecting building safety and durability of the building envelope and faade.

Indeed, operations and maintenance practices are important influences on infrastructure vulnerability. This was a finding of Canada?s first National Engineering Vulnerability Assessment of Public Infrastructure, which emphasized climate change as a factor that threatens infrastructure resilience (see Box 4). Examples on the ground show that ongoing operational and maintenance practices can compromise a building?s structural and envelope integrity, even if its initial design and construction is sound. For example, a five- year-old birch tree that had grown into the roof membrane of the Yukon government legislature building was not an effect of changing climate conditions, but highlights issues in ongoing operations and maintenance that makes infrastructure susceptible to failure today. A changing climate is likely to increase the need for ongoing attention to maintenance.

BOX 4: Canada?s first National Engineering Vulnerability Assessment of Public Infrastructure highlights threats to infrastructure resilience

Engineers Canada (the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers) and its partners published in 2008, Canada?s first National Engineering Vulnerability Assessment of Public Infrastructure. Based on a series of case studies on different types of infrastructure, the assessment reached the following conclusions for Canada:

  • Some infrastructure components have high engineering vulnerability to climate change.
  • Improved tools are required to guide professional judgment.
  • Infrastructure data gaps are an engineering vulnerability.
  • Improvement is needed for climate data, development of updated and improved climatic design values, and climate change projections used for engineering vulnerability assessment and design of infrastructure.
  • Improvements are needed in design approaches.
  • Climate change is one factor that diminishes resiliency.
  • Engineering vulnerability assessment requires multidisciplinary teams.

The impacts of climate change combined with regional and community characteristics and external social and economic forces can amplify existing risks and create new ones. For example, the drive to increase regional economic wealth in order to increase housing options and health services is a powerful incentive to attract investment in the enormous resource development potential that climate change is helping make more accessible. However, the pace of development could overtake careful planning and appropriate risk assessment. The prospect of rapid development could also be an incentive to expedite regulatory processes, with long-lasting effects for communities. Rapid processes reduce the likelihood of building to standards or making forward-looking adjustments in the design and construction of infrastructure, such as the consideration of projected climate change. Infrastructure designed and built in haste to facilitate a boom of resource development could thus represent a vulnerable asset from the start.

The legacy of resource booms is already playing out in Canada?s North. For example, the Town of Faro (Yukon) is facing the management of a large stock of infrastructure abandoned and exposed to northern climate conditions for over 10 years since the final closure of the Faro mine. The town?s utility systems were designed to accommodate a community over 10 times larger than what they currently service, and are expensive to maintain. This constrains investing in other priority infrastructure areas, including channelling additional resources into enhancing infrastructure resilience to climate change.

Table 12 summarizes potential risks and opportunities that a changing climate poses to northern infrastructure, which were highlighted in Canada?s 2008 scientific assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation.

TABLE 12: Risks and opportunities of climate change
Sector Example of risk / opportunity
Infrastructure (general)
  • In the short term, the effects on permafrost from ground disturbance and construction pose more risks than climate change
  • Structures built before 1990s, those on ice-rich soils, and those built on shallow foundations are most at risk
  • Newer major structures starting to consider life-cycle effects of climate change in engineering design
  • Risks from changes in precipitation patterns and types (snow, rain, freezing rain), and freshwater systems (e.g., exposure to flooding), and from changing patterns of freeze/ thaw (e.g., exposure to ice jamming)
  • Increased risk of wildland fires has adverse implications for a variety of infrastructure types, including houses in towns and communication towers in remote areas
Transportation (winter roads)
  • Reduced reliance on winter roads, with implications such as supply chain disruptions for mining operations; loss of access in and out of remote communities reliant on winter road networks; pressure to build all-season roads
Transportation (marine)
  • Potential for new Arctic shipping routes, longer summer shipping; ice hazards continue in winter for next decades
  • Increased large vessel traffic through Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea present risks to coastal communities and small vessels
Transportation (freshwater)
  • Potential for longer shipping season for Mackenzie barges, contingent on optimal lake and river levels
  • Reduced reliance on river transport systems for resupply due to low water levels
Energy (hydro-electric development)
  • Challenges in meeting increased demand with changing natural storage
  • Operational risks (flooding) linked to changes in river-ice regimes and formation of ice dams
Energy (oil and gas)
  • Operational risks to exploration activities (e.g., effects of enhanced wave action and storm surges on offshore drilling)
  • Risk of release of drilling waste linked to permafrost melting and ground instability
  • Risks to the integrity of linear structures, such as oil & gas pipelines, connected to differential settlement across permafrost terrain
  • Enhanced exploration potential under reduced sea-ice conditions
  • Supply chain disruptions related to reduced winter road availability
  • Risk of release of waste-rock, tailings from containment structures, linked to permafrost melting and ground instability
  • Operational risks from changing patterns of severe weather (especially snow, blizzard and wind conditions)
  • New deep port (Bathurst Inlet) and related gravel road network could present growth opportunity

Source: Furgal and Prowse (2008).

NRTEE research revealed specific issues of concern to northerners and a number of instances where current infrastructure vulnerability and the industries and populations that these systems service is already evident. In particular, six main climate impacts require consideration:

  • Warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, including snow, rain, and freezing rain conditions
  • Permafrost degradation
  • Flooding and stream flow changes
  • Sea-ice loss and coastal erosion
  • Changing weather extremes
  • Wildfires

These climate impacts are of relevance to the five categories of infrastructure discussed earlier: transportation, buildings, communications, energy, and containment structures.

Warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns

  • Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have the potential to affect all infrastructure types and related services. With rising temperatures, air moisture will increase, giving rise to higher snow and ice loads, higher humidity (fog) and changes in snow-to-rain ratios. Fog affects air travel, and higher moisture levels add to deterioration and increased maintenance costs of airport runways. In parts of Canada?s North, buildings, energy, and communications infrastructure were designed and built for low snowfall conditions; in other parts of the region infrastructure is exposed to high snow loads because of snow drifting. Increased snow and warmer temperatures causing freezing rain events, and rain on existing snow cover are already resulting in infrastructure failure. Snow is also wetter and therefore heavier.

  • Warmer temperatures are resulting in shorter winter road seasons. The mining industry, which is a main user of winter roads, may be able to adapt to their reduced availability by concentrating the shipping of supplies in a shorter season or considering all-season roads, albeit at a cost. Northern communities ? particularly in the Northwest Territories ? may also be able to adapt but are likely to bear increased costs for the delivery of food and other supplies. The Diavik Diamond Mine has had to take expensive measures to compensate for ice roads that have failed to freeze thick enough to allow resupply. In May 2006, the company resorted to using a large helicopter to airlift stranded heavy equipment to its mine 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. Reducing reliance on goods from distant suppliers can increase coping capacity and enhances resilience. For example, reducing communities? and mines? demand for fossil fuels either through energy efficiency or renewable energy applications as an adaptation option has a few benefits. It reduces the risks in transporting and storing the fuel, decreases dependence in resources that may becoming increasingly unpredictable to secure, and has the potential of reducing GHGs.

  • Freeze/thaw cycles are another climate change impact affecting different types of infrastructure. In Gjoa Haven (Nunavut), alternating cycles of warm and cold temperatures coupled with rain events contributed to a dike failure in 2005. In Inuvik (Northwest Territories), freeze/thaw cycles have contributed to ground slumping at the airport, requiring emergency repairs in the wintertime. Warmer winter weather is also leading to a phenomenon known in the Northwest Territories as overflow and as glaciation in Yukon. Most common in small streams, it refers to meltwater flowing over frozen rivers and roads, subsequently freezing on the surface.

  • Ice jamming and unusual breakup patterns of river ice trigger serious damage to infrastructure. In 2009, large blocks of river ice drove into and around structures in the Dawson and Faro areas (Yukon) and Eagle (Alaska), causing extensive damage. Risks from seasonal flooding and ice jamming along major river channels and coasts are important considerations in siting and operating industrial facilities. The design of artificial islands developed for oil production at Norman Wells (Northwest Territories) took into account high-water levels caused by ice jams along the Mackenzie River.

Permafrost degradation

  • Communities that are dependant upon airport runways and all-weather roads are likely to experience ever-increasing maintenance costs due to the gradual loss of structural integrity.[50] Communications towers and energy transmission infrastructure located in remote permafrost areas are becoming increasingly susceptible to the risk of failure and, since accessibility may also be an issue and the cost of redundancy is prohibitive, the threat posed by this hazard will become increasingly significant.

  • Energy pipelines built over permafrost terrain could be at risk of rupture and leakage if design and maintenance protocols do not account for the potential for permafrost thawing, related settlement, and frost-heave.[51] Permafrost thawing and freeze-thaw cycles also present challenges to the long-term safety of underground fuel storage tanks. Tank stability and integrity is critical in preventing fuel leaks and fires. Governments and insurers are providing incentives to owners of underground storage tanks to switch to safer, more reliable applications.

  • The integrity of containment structures built on frozen foundations may be at risk over the next five decades unless refurbishments of existing thermosyphon systems take place or new ones are installed. Release of toxics from containment structures, such as mining tailings ponds, could be environmentally and socially disastrous, causing irreversible degradation of sensitive habitat and human health impacts.

Flooding and streamflow changes

  • The potential for increased flooding is a concern for communities located on floodplains. Washouts can affect highways, as has already been observed along parts of the Dempster Highway (Yukon). In Yukon, fibre optic cables for communications systems are located along highways adjacent to rivers, with significant areas susceptible to flooding.

  • Community relocation is one option to deal with persistent flooding and bank erosion. The community of Aklavik (Northwest Territories), located on the banks of the Peel Channel, experienced severe erosion, permafrost degradation, and disastrous flooding in the 1950s. This prompted the Government of Canada to build the settlement of Inuvik and relocate the community to a location with lower flood risk, with mixed success. Several hundred community members stayed in Aklavik, currently linked to Inuvik and other communities via winter roads and air access.

  • Increased flooding and runoff will contribute to silt buildup resulting from erosion. Communities on floodplains may experience increased costs of maintaining river infrastructure because of increased silting. Communities that rely on water transportation may find increased silting of navigation channels causing difficulties for access of ships/barges, and may require additional capital expenditures for dredging. Silting or decreased flows have already disrupted navigation in some places. The Porcupine River at Old Crow (Yukon) used to supply the town, but silting and already low summer water levels are causing serious restrictions in boat traffic.

Sea-ice loss and coastal erosion

  • Coastal communities have observed the loss of sea ice, greater wave action, and the resulting erosion of coastlines. Coupled with land instability from permafrost degradation, intensified storm surges connected to higher sea levels, changes in storm intensities and tracks, and sea-ice loss may force the relocation of whole communities in the future. Tuktoyaktuk (Northwest Territories), a community of under 1,000 people located at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, has experienced some of the fastest rates of coastal erosion and permafrost melt in Canada, estimated at about six feet a year. Already a local school and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters have had to be relocated further inland when the shoreline was washed away. The community has spent nearly $6 million over the past 10 years transporting rocks for shoreline protection.

Weather extremes

  • Storms are likely to become more frequent and intense, and with wetter and warmer winters, northerners may be facing more severe snowstorms. Emerging evidence from communities points to the vulnerability of buildings to such heavy snow events. Over 20 per cent of public access buildings in the Northwest Territories are at risk or have been reinforced to account for increasing risk of roof collapse related to snowstorms.

  • In 2003, strong wave action brought on by high winds in Hall Beach, a community of about 650 people located on Melville Peninsula, damaged the recently built erosion control structure. Emergency repairs to the structure were necessary to protect nearby houses.

  • In 2008, snowmelt and intense rainfall over two days led to flooding in Pangnirtung (Nunavut), causing erosion of permafrost terrain in an area supporting bridge structures. This event damaged two bridges and bridge-access roads, affecting the community?s access to essential services.


  • A changing climate is likely to affect patterns of forest disturbances (such as wildfires and insect outbreaks), and this is a major concern for community infrastructure below the tree line. The communications sector recognizes this is a serious issue for remote microwave stations. Similarly, in the energy sector, wood structures are at risk from fire as well as from insect infestations.

  • An interruption in communications services from wildfires is significant because of the lack of system redundancies. In Inuvik (Northwest Territories), for example, the network of cash machines and bank information systems rely on the continued performance of one communications tower. If it breaks down, delays in repair (and, consequently, in restoring service) are likely because technicians for the tower reside outside of town.

  • In 2004, a record forest fire season in central Yukon added to changes in the sensitivity of the permafrost ground, resulting in a large number of landslides in the Dawson area. The slides compromised transportation routes in the region and affected building structures considerably.

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43 For further information on these projects see: http://www.nu-mbrss.snclavalin.com/ and http://www.nunalogistics.com/projects/clients/bathurst/index.html

44 From Statistics Canada ? Census 2006 ? Community profiles.

45 According to the OECD, characteristics of a knowledge-based economy include ?trends in advanced economies toward greater dependence on knowledge, information and high skill levels, as the increasing need for ready access to all of these by the business and public sectors.? http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=6864 Accessed on April 23, 2009.

46 For more information, see http://www.nunavut-broadband.ca/access.htm.

47 For more information on the ecoENERGY for Aboriginal and Northern Communities Program, see http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/enr/clc/pra/ovr-eng.asp.

48 See the Yukon Energy Strategy (http://www.emr.gov.yk.ca/energy/energy_strategy.html), the Energy Priorities Framework of the Northwest Territories (http://www.iti.gov.nt.ca/energy/EnergyPrioritiesFramework.shtml), and the Government of Nunavut Energy Strategy (http://www.gov.nu.ca/documents/energy/EnergyStrategy_ENG.pdf).

49 Although the NRTEE?s research focused on containment structures for mining applications, other types exist including solid waste facilities and sewage lagoons.

50 Permafrost degradation is also an issue for transportation infrastructure in northern portions of some provinces. In Tasiujaq, Ungava Bay, Quebec, permafrost degradation affected the functioning of the airport runway, disrupting the community?s access to essential goods and services, such as food and medical attention (Bourque and Simonet, 2008).

51 Other linear structures affected by permafrost degradation include rail lines, such as those serving the Port of Churchill (northern Manitoba). Continued permafrost degradation will add to operating and maintenance costs, potentially requiring early replacement of this infrastructure (Sauchyn, and Kulshreshtha 2008).