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article imageWarming climate now threatens Canada's iconic ice road

By Karen Graham     Dec 28, 2015 in Environment
Each winter, in a marvel of engineering, an ice road is constructed in Canada's northern reaches, traveling over frozen lakes and tundra. It is a supply line to remote diamond mines and exploration sites otherwise only accessible by air.
This year, however, the building of this vital artery is running a bit late, although it is expected to be open for traffic by the end of January.
Canada's ice road gained fame around the world when the History Channel debuted the first showing of Ice Road Truckers on June 7, 2007. The reality TV series brought into our living rooms the vivid details of the treacherous job of driving big rigs over frozen ice roads.
For most of the year, access to three mine sites in the Northwest Territories is by way of a series lakes with 64 portages. But for a few short winter months, the route becomes the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, reports Reuters, named for the first and last of hundreds of lakes along the route, ending nearly 400 kilometres (248 miles) to the north.
Ice road across the Mackenzie River  at Tsiigehtchic  Northwest Territories.
Ice road across the Mackenzie River, at Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories.
Ian Mackenzie
Call it freak weather, climate change or El Nino, but if the current weather conditions continue, it will require additional work for the crews trying to build the ice road, or it will cut into the road's already short period of usefulness. Either way, a vital supply route is threatened.
Since its first season in 1982, the road has been an invaluable lifeline to sites otherwise cut off without the road, and only accessible by air. And this is why the road is so vital. During the winter, big rigs can haul a year's worth of supplies for about one-quarter to one-eighth the price of using air cargo.
So a shorter season can lead to increased costs of operation for the companies who own the road, including Joint Venture Management Committee (JVMC), with BHP Billiton Diamonds Inc. and Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. That is a bucketful of money when you consider that last year, 9,000 truckloads of diesel, machines and mining supplies were moved over the ice road, according to the Globe and Mail.
Snap Lake mine in Feb  2006. The portal with a 40 ton haul truck exiting.
Snap Lake mine in Feb, 2006. The portal with a 40 ton haul truck exiting.
Michael Fuller from Perth, Australia
Weather woes for the ice road
Climate scientists are looking at weather trends over the past several years, worried this year's late freeze is a harbinger of things to come. There is also the real worry over melting of the permafrost, the frozen layer of soil covering nearly half of Canada's landmass. Trapped methane gas in the frozen permafrost will be released as it thaws, adding the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere and hastening global warming.
There is also El Nino and its impact on this year's weather to consider. We now know and are coming to realize the far-reaching effects the El Nino weather phenomenon can have on weather, not only in North America, but around the world.
David Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, says this is Yellowknife's second warmest December on record. This year, the average temperature has been about -15 Celsius. Phillips points out the NWT falls mostly within the Mackenzie River Basin, where winter temperatures have increased by 4.5 degrees Celsius in the last 68 years. “That’s a sea change,” said Phillips. “It is just runaway warming.”
Earlier ice roads in Canada
Some of the first ice roads in northern Canada appeared in the 1930s. Caterpillar sleds pulled heavy loads called tractor trains to the mines when loads were too heavy for transport by aircraft or the soil was too boggy for standard roads when the land was not frozen.[
Eventually, caterpillar tractor trains were phased out, taken over by well-maintained ice roads engineered by Al Hamilton of Grimshaw Transport in the 1950s. The roads were later perfected by John Denison of Byers Transport in the 1960s, and Robinson's Trucking in the 1980s.
In the broader context, ice roads are used in many parts of the world, and all for basically the same purpose. From Antarctica to China, and even the United States, these winter roads allow access to places that would otherwise be left in isolation during the winter months.
More about ice rod, marvel of engineering, world's longest ice road, Canada's North West territories, Warm weather
 
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