Climate Change Paves the Way for Canadian Community’s Coastal Highway

The Tuktoyaktuk ice highway, which was decomissioned in 2017 due to climate change.

This summer when the residents of Canada’s northernmost village head to the coast for supplies, they will be doing it in style. They will be traveling via the community’s very first year-round highway.

The new 86 mile/137 kilometer road is made of gravel, but for many residents of Tuktoyaktuk (called Tuk by locals), in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories, it’s a dream they never thought would come true.

For hundreds of years the Inuvialuit peoples have relied on Northern Canada’s harsh winter weather as a means for travel. The tiny hamlet sits above the Arctic Circle, surrounded by tundra permafrost, where even most trees won’t grow. Until this year, traveling to the nearest town, Inuvik (pop. 3,243) required navigating the area’s desolate winter ice road, a layer of ice that is at times, 4 to 5 feet thick.

Once the weather begins to warm, though, the ice road becomes gradually unstable above the soppy-wet permafrost. With no dependable road, residents must then rely on air transport to bring in supplies — at an exorbitant cost.

But that’s about to change. And it’s in part, thanks to climate change.

Like most parts of North America, the Canadian Arctic has been experiencing unprecedented warming cycles in recent years. Seasonal roads that once served as the link between Canada’s most remote communities are being eaten away by warming trends that are taking a toll both on the ecology and its inhabitants. Costs are skyrocketing for communities that once lived with relative independence. Medical access and other services are increasingly being ruled by weather changes.

But the fight for what is now called the northern extension of the Dempster Highway isn’t new. Local residents have actually been petitioning for a permanent road since the 1960s. By 1974, Public Works Canada had mapped out a tentative route for the gravel road, and two decades later, the Government of Northwest Territories began reviewing its feasibility. The process has been a decade-by-decade struggle, marked by the bureaucracy that often arises with staggering costs. The road will cost more than $2 million, much of which will come from the federal government.

As is often the case, the project’s appeal lie in its economic benefits. By the early 2000s, proponents were able to show that while the cost of putting a road in would be about $230 million, the economic benefits would be around $248 million. And that was just the extra revenue that would be gained from goods and services within the Northwest Territories. The project identified another $100 million in revenue that would be of benefit to other parts of the country. Building a permanent road that could shepherd in tourism, better building supplies, new jobs and cheaper food and medical services wasn’t just good for Tuk’s economy, it was good for Canada’s as well.

Still, no one really knows just how well the gravel road will hold up in coming years. Southern parts of the Dempster Highway, which has been in place since 1958, is experiencing more and more washouts as temperatures warm and the ground thaws. The impact of climate change on a road that sits exclusively on spongy, warming tundra permafrost is unknown.

But residents still feel they have won a massive battle. A climate phenomena that is gradually transforming the ecology around them and may one day force them to move, has just this once, been a blessing for economic change.

Flickr images: Ian MacKenzie; Arctic Coastal Dynamics

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Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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