Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
December 2009

Vol. 14, No. 49 Week of December 06, 2009

Melt could cost trillions

Pipelines, roads, buildings threatened by extreme temperature swings in Arctic

Gary Park

For Petroleum News

A meltdown in northern Canada is endangering pipelines, roads and buildings — including C$5 trillion worth of aging infrastructure — if climate change continues unabated in the decades ahead, says a report by an independent federal advisory panel.

Softening permafrost and rising temperatures mean billions of extra dollars will have to be invested in new infrastructure projects to withstand changing climate conditions, said the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, established in 1988 and made up of business leaders and environmentalists.

NRTEE Chairman Bob Page said there is still a chance to manage the change if prompt and decisive action is taken.

The alternative, if buildings, roads and pipelines start collapsing or are placed in real danger, will be a “kind of ad hoc arrangement,” he told the Calgary Herald.

Page said the Mackenzie River Valley, possibly along with Siberia, faces the greatest temperature swings of any place on earth.

He said in a news release that climate change is moving so fast in Arctic regions that Canada must become a world leader in adaptation practices “more than we had ever contemplated.”

Report has recommendations

That includes action on 16 recommendations, drawn from consultations with more than 100 experts and residents as part of the research effort.

“Melting permafrost is undermining building foundations and threatens roads, pipelines and communications infrastructure,” the report said, identifying dangers to energy systems, waste disposal sites and ponds containing toxic tailings from mines.

The report called for a wide-scale effort from all levels of government and aboriginal communities.

It said current facts of life faced by the region include the loss of 6 feet of coastline each year at Tuktoyaktuk, a Northwest Territories community of less than 1,000 lying on the shore of the Arctic Ocean; a winter ice road north of Yellowknife failed to freeze; and the collapse of a communications tower in Inuvik, shutting down bank machines in the town.

But the report says governments, businesses and communities are woefully unprepared to deal with destruction of systems that keep them functioning.

“Storm surges, wildfires, floods, blizzards and changing wind and snowstorm patterns all pose risks to remote and vulnerable communities,” the NRTEE said.

Cuts undermine monitoring

It warned that federal government spending cuts have undermined Canada’s ability to monitor environmental changes in the north and to use that information to design infrastructure, because there is no central agency to gather and share information.

The report said there is no “high-level signal” from the Canadian government to northern communities and industries that adapting to a changing climate is a priority worthy of urgent action.

It said the government must take these potentially costly gaps into account as it develops a new northern strategy that focuses on defending Canadian Arctic sovereignty claims, social and economic development, environmental protection and improved governance.

Lessons learned

Citing lessons already learned from the spending cuts, the report said:

• In 2006 company officials at the Diavik diamond mine north of Yellowknife were forced to airlift heavy equipment that was stranded at the mine site when the single ice road that is the sole means of overland transportation failed to freeze thick enough to support vehicles. If ice roads become inoperable, the price of food and other supplies for remote communities — already many times more expensive than those in southern Canada — will rise dramatically.

• Tuktoyaktuk has already relocated a school and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment at great expense after the shore was washed away. The community has spent about C$6 million in the past decade trying to rebuild the shoreline.

• Waste dumps at more than 50 abandoned mines throughout the north, known as tailings ponds, were built on the assumption that permafrost would contain the sludge for many years. A release of toxins from these ponds could be “environmentally and socially disastrous,” the report said.

The NRTEE said about half of Canada’s permafrost zones are “moderately or highly sensitive to thawing.

“Given the extensive exploration under way in all three territories (Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut) the numbers of this infrastructure type are likely to increase markedly over the next few years,” with 12 mining projects currently under review and more than 200 sites being explored by mining firms.

“Canada’s north is the frontline in the global climate change challenge. Nowhere else in our country, or on our planet, are the early effects of climate change so plain. Nowhere else in Canada are communities and traditional ways of life so clearly at risk due to climate change,” the report said.

“Making the roads we travel, the buildings we work and live in, the pipelines that carry our energy and wealth … secure in the face of looking climate change is not just a challenge to Canada’s north, but an obligation to us all.”

Expected impacts

The NRTEE predicts the impact on the region will include:

Snow: Global warming will increase air moisture levels, which will raise the amount of precipitation in the north and lead to far greater snow and ice falls. The problem: Most homes, radio towers, and other infrastructure have been designed and built for low snowfall conditions and will have to be reinforced.

Erosion: The loss of sea ice is causing greater wave action, which is washing away coastlines. Add intensified storm surges to the mix and whole communities may have to be relocated in the future.

Ice roads: Moving goods over ice roads in the winter has been the lifeblood of many northern mines and communities. With increased warming, northern regions may have to spend a lot of money to build all-weather roads, and companies may be forced to move freight by helicopter.

Fire: Below the tree line, a warmer world will mean a problem common in southern regions will spread north: wildfires. The report says this will become “a major concern” for infrastructure and for remote microwave towers.

Melting permafrost: The integrity of any structure in the north built on permafrost will be threatened by global warming. The list is long, including roads, airport runways, communications towers, pipelines, and underground fuel storage tanks.

Arctic sea ice all but gone

A leading Canadian ice scientist has challenged studies claiming Arctic sea ice is making a modest comeback from an unprecedented retreat in 2007.

David Barber, research chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, said the once-30-foot-thick permanent ice that is vital to the northern ecosystem has merely been replaced by thin “rotten” ice that is unable to support the weight of polar bears.

“Contrary to what satellites recently suggested, we are actually speeding up the loss of the remaining, healthy, multiyear sea ice,” he said.

His findings are about to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and argue the change in Arctic ecosystems is accelerating and that sea navigation through the polar waters during the summer and fall will occur much sooner than many have predicted.

Barber said the satellite images tracking the extent of Arctic ice fail to show how weak the older, thicker ice core has become.

Back from an expedition to the Beaufort Sea, Barber said his team of researchers was expecting to find multiyear sea ice.

“Unfortunately, what we found was that the multiyear ice has all but disappeared,” he said.

The permanent ice was easily pierced by the research ship and, within five minutes of reaching what was thought to be stable ice, the scientists watched the “entire ice floe break up in pieces.”

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks the Arctic ice cover, reported in 2007 that the sea ice was reduced to about 1.1 million square miles in September from 3.6 million square miles the previous winter,

Multiyear ice at 19 percent

Barber said multiyear sea ice, which once covered 90 percent of the Arctic basin, is now down to about 19 percent and is only 6.5 feet thick at most.

He said the satellite images from 2008 and 2009, which led some to believe that global warming was reversing, “gave us only part of the story.”

Barber said polar bears are now confined to a small fringe of where the multiyear sea ice exists.

He warned that opening the Arctic to international shipping would worsen the situation if freighters brought with them new contaminants.

A new Arctic road map released by the U.S. Department of the Navy lays out a five-year strategic plan to expand fleet operations into the Arctic in expectations that the Arctic Ocean will be open water by summer 2030.

The plans talks about “strong partnerships” with other Arctic nations, suggesting the Arctic may be opened up to increased resource development, research, tourism and a new global transportation system.

“These developments offer opportunities for growth, but also are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources,” said the document, signed by Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, vice chief of U.S. Naval Operations.

—Gary Park

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