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Environmental Challenges for Governments in the North

Canadian governments will face three distinct dimensions of climate change in the North in the immediate future: the impacts of thawing permafrost on infrastructure, co-management of environmental effects and increased tourism, writes Chris Burn.

Written by Chris Burn Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Canada yukon ivvavik np spe 3021
Ivvavik National Park in Yukon Territory. (CC BY SA 3.0)Wikimedia/Steyer

In Canada, federal public rhetoric regarding the North from 2006 to 2015 was dominated by issues of security and resource development. Now, however, the prospects for resource development in the Arctic are modest, given the reduced market prices of energy and minerals, while the diamond industry, based entirely on demand for jewelry, suffers from lackluster economic growth in developed countries. The previous Liberal government spent several years early in this century encouraging the Mackenzie Gas Project – a proposed natural gas production and transportation system linking gas fields near the western Arctic coast with northern Alberta via a pipeline along the Mackenzie Valley of Canada’s Northwest Territories. There is currently no similar megaproject around which federal attention is able to coalesce.

In fact, the greatest policy challenge facing environmental governance is posed by climate change. Economic pressures normally trump mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions in government policy, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his minister for the environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, appear to recognize that Canadians have a relatively large carbon footprint when it is calculated on a per capita basis. The government has signaled that policy around climate change will be a priority. However, despite the attention generated by high-profile international events such as the Conference of the Parties in Paris, climate change is a nebulous concept for many Canadians, and there is, as yet, no cohesion on public action aimed at reducing net carbon emissions.

North of 60°N, climate change is real and immediate. Simulations of future climate indicate that the magnitude of climate warming anticipated in our North is greater than we expect for southern latitudes, and that the majority of warming will be felt in autumn and winter. For example, with respect to the 1971–2000 baseline, we expect annual temperatures in the western Arctic to be at least 3C (5.4F) higher by 2050 and 4C (7.2F) higher in autumn and winter. The magnitude will increase as time passes. There are two principal physical impacts of climate warming that have already become apparent: First, the reduction in late summer sea-ice extent; and, second, degrading permafrost.

This paper focuses on three distinct dimensions of climate change in the North that Canadian governments will face in the immediate future: the implications and impacts of building and maintaining public infrastructure on thawing permafrost; co-management of environmental effects; and increased tourism in the North.

A deformed, abandoned highway near Yellowknife in Northwest Territories. (NRCan/R. Fraser)

A deformed, abandoned highway near Yellowknife in Northwest Territories. (NRCan/R. Fraser)

Public Infrastructure

Many northern communities, especially those north of the treeline, are built on permafrost. Warming of permafrost leads to loss of bearing capacity for pile foundations (pillars anchored in permafrost that provide a platform for buildings) while thawing and settlement reduces the functional state of infrastructure. In September 2013, for example, Inuvik (Mike Zubko) Airport was closed to jet traffic because of the settlement of the runway, and both the Alaska Highway northwest of Destruction Bay in Yukon, and Highway 3, northwest of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT), are under continual maintenance from the degradation of ice-rich permafrost beneath their undulating surfaces. In particular, thawing beneath the side slopes of road or runway embankments leads to rotation of these shoulders, causing deep longitudinal cracks in the driving surface

Long-term vigilance is required for the national transportation network where it is built upon permafrost. Roads and airports in the North, constructed with significant federal investment, are now threatened by thawing substrates. The network is critical for the sustenance of northern communities, which rely on shipments of groceries and other supplies from the south and need airstrips for rapid access to healthcare in regional centers.

Yukon has undertaken a long-term experiment near Beaver Creek (near the Alaska border) to test a highway embankment with a variety of innovative designs engineered to mitigate the thermal disturbance of the structure on the underlying permafrost. These include light-colored surfacing materials to reflect incident radiation, sun and snow sheds to shade the embankment and pipes to circulate cold air through the embankment sides in the winter. The most successful, and the only design that has prevented thawing of permafrost beneath the embankment, involved construction with rocks rather than gravel so that in the winter heat movement through and out of the embankment is enhanced by convective air flow in the spaces between the rocks. These techniques are pricey, with the air convection embankment costing about six times more than a normal embankment over a 30-year operating life, when design, construction and maintenance costs are considered. While we do not anticipate that whole highways will require new embankments, sections of each road and runway where permafrost degradation occurs will need mitigation as climate change proceeds.

It is possible to plan for the consequences of climate change by developing a smart mitigation strategy for our transportation network in the North. This will involve careful assessment, on a kilometer-by-kilometer basis, of the current embankments and their performance. Terrain analysis of permafrost conditions along the highway corridor may identify locations of greatest risk for failure of embankments, due both to gradual degradation of permafrost and potential sudden failures. It is then that strategic locations for application of novel construction techniques that will prolong facility life can be identified. Planning for climate change is critical because the magnitude of climate warming anticipated in the North is greater than the 2C (3.6F) target for limiting global climate change.

Wildlife co-management boards find themselves facing previously unanticipated challenges associated with climate change, for instance management of wildlife populations under stress, such as the polar bear. (Pixabay)

Wildlife co-management boards find themselves facing previously unanticipated challenges associated with climate change, for instance management of wildlife populations under stress, such as the polar bear. (Pixabay)

Co-Management and Land Claims Implementation

Settlement of land claims and devolution of regulatory powers to Yukon and NWT have made fundamental changes to environmental governance in northern Canada. In Nunavut, the land claims agreement has made adjustments to the governance regime comparable to the other territories, but devolution is not as advanced. Furthermore, the new federal government has made reconciliation with Indigenous people one of its initial priorities, and, north of 60°N, this will involve good-faith implementation of extant land claims agreements.

The federal government signed land claims agreements throughout most of the northern territories after long and careful negotiations. Land claims are resolved in three-way agreements between Indigenous people, territorial governments and the federal government. Co-management of environmental resources and assessment of development projects are key parts of these agreements. The management is achieved through jointly constituted boards, supported by the work of board staff, and federal and territorial scientists. The boards are key agents of land claims implementation.

Commonly, co-management is dominated by concerns over wildlife harvesting, especially of caribou and polar bears. Co-management structures (i.e., the boards and their staff) are funded through direct federal agreements, or by transfers from the federal government via territorial governments. The co-management structures are broadly symmetrical among the parties as regards representation, but asymmetrical with respect to financing, as per the negotiated agreements.

The land claims agreements promise federal support for wildlife management boards. The boards review the status of wildlife populations and set harvesting quotas on this basis. These boards find themselves facing previously unanticipated challenges associated with climate change, for instance, management of wildlife populations under stress, such as the polar bear. The obligations of the boards have grown as a result of these unanticipated challenges. There are two principal issues with the expansion of board activities and obligations: First, support for the boards has barely kept pace with inflation, and does not recognize the expanded roles, duties and activities of the boards. Second, participation by land-claim beneficiaries in co-management activities, such as field surveys, is not always facilitated by federal agencies. This may lead to mistrust of the federal agencies’ results. In the North, local issues may become magnified in significance, especially during controversy, and may undo successful collaboration in other areas on the agenda.

Environmental and social assessments of development projects are also conducted under processes that are negotiated through land claims. The federal government is a principal party to each settlement. In Nunavut, the federal failure to establish an operational monitoring program, as laid out in the land claim, led to judgment against the government in 2012. In Yukon, the Council of Yukon First Nations launched litigation in October 2015 against the government over Bill S-6 – the Yukon and Nunavut Regulatory Improvement Act – and its unilateral imposition of changes to the environmental assessment regime laid out in the Yukon First Nations’ land claims settlement. Given the public statements by the prime minister and other members of his Cabinet that the government intends to address many issues raised by Indigenous people, action in this area will be anticipated, for example by repealing sections of Bill S-6 found to be at variance with the Yukon final agreements.

Canada’s national parks are a significant part of the federal environmental presence in the North. The parks are mostly in remote locations without easy access and as a result have few visitors. (CC BY 2.0). (Wikimedia/ADialla)

Tourism in the Arctic

Canadian portions of the Arctic Ocean remain under federal jurisdiction and are likely to see increased human activity with reduced sea ice in summer, increasing the need for vigilance and capacity to respond to human and environmental emergencies. Sea-ice effects have enhanced cruise ship tourism in our Arctic, which is the primary source of new passages through the archipelago. The increased traffic requires more comprehensive bathymetric charts of the sea floor, greater search-and-rescue capacity and an ability to respond to environmental contamination from large ships. All of these areas are under federal jurisdiction. Although to date, relatively small vessels have caused a few problems, as when the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground, the first transit by a large ship, Crystal Serenity, occurred in August 2016. We are not prepared for a rescue mission to a large ship, when time will be limited before hypothermia becomes a risk for the thousands of passengers and crew accustomed to cruising in a warmer environment.

In addition, national parks constitute a significant component of the federal environmental presence in the North. The parks are mostly in remote locations without easy access. As a result, the parks have few visitors. The lack of visitor facilities in these national parks renders them attractive to wilderness travelers, and inhibits other Canadians, less familiar with our wilderness, from visiting them. In the last two to three years, Parks Canada has begun to improve facilities in its parks in the western Arctic and to organize access for a variety of visitors. The field units that have begun to consider more assertive strategies to draw Canadians into our northern environmental heritage have met with considerable initial success, demonstrating that Canadians of many backgrounds share interest in our natural heritage, including the remote Arctic. This initiative promises to improve Canadians’ knowledge and awareness of northern environments in a tangible way.

Policy Recommendations

Public Infrastructure Sustainability

  • The federal government should continue to plan for budgetary requirements to mitigate significant effects on northern transportation infrastructure due to climate change.
  • The federal government, in partnership with northern and provincial governments, must conduct research to identify locations along established transportation corridors where the infrastructure may require investment due to permafrost degradation.

Co-management and Land Claims Implementation

  • The federal government must fulfill its obligations under land claims agreements. This may include examining Bill S-6, the Yukon and Nunavut Regulatory Improvement Act in the context of the Yukon Land Claims.
  • The federal government should examine the operation of wildlife management boards to determine if their scope has expanded in light of climate change effects to wildlife, and increase support to the boards accordingly.

Northern Tourism

  • Search-and-rescue preparedness must increase and be associated with the increase in tourist cruising in the Arctic Ocean, including transits of the Northwest Passage.
  • As shipping increases in Canadian Arctic waters, preparedness for dealing with unanticipated discharges to the environment must be maintained.
  • The federal government should continue to increase access to northern national parks for a wide spectrum of Canadians, including new Canadians, as planned by Parks Canada.

In the last two decades, environmental governance in the North has been largely concerned with assessment and regulation of development projects. Significant annual expenditures are now anticipated, in perpetuity, for the mitigation of the environmental effects of abandoned mines, in particular at Faro in Yukon and the Giant Mine near Yellowknife, NWT. In addition to these obligations, the federal government faces the prospect of climate changes that will be amplified in the Arctic. In Canada’s western Arctic, the magnitude of climate warming since 1970 has already surpassed the target of 2C (3.6F) for containing global climate change. A large fraction of the physical infrastructure in the territories is built on permafrost. The federal government must assist these jurisdictions to mitigate the effects of thawing permafrost on this infrastructure, particularly throughout the diverse landscapes present along the transportation corridors and at airports.

Climate warming also poses direct challenges for management of wildlife populations and the responsibilities of northern co-management boards. The ability of these boards to function effectively and fulfill their negotiated mandates requires significant attention, particularly in light of the declared policy to renew federal relationships with Indigenous peoples.

Finally, the opening of the Arctic Ocean and the passages between Canada’s Arctic Islands to increased shipping requires federal vigilance with respect to emergency preparedness and contamination of Arctic waters.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

This piece originally appeared in “North of 60: Toward a Renewed Canadian Arctic Agenda,” and is reprinted here with permission. Read the full report here.

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