Locals say global warming is to blame for the premature thawing of a critical access road into Alberta's most northern communities.

The ice road, joining Fort Chipewyan and other areas to the rest of Alberta, has been shut down due to melting and unsafe conditions. Commuters now have to fly to gain access to the area.

The winter road, which is usually open from mid-December to mid-March, stretches about 280 kilometres travelling over frozen lakes, rivers, muskeg, mudflats and sand dunes in the Athabasca River Delta.

Wes Holobniuk, manager of road operations for the vicinity, says he can't remember a time when the road has melted so extensively and so early.

"We have had a couple winters where we would have a day or two of above zero and then it would cool right down but this stretch has been well over a week now, so some people enjoy it and some people are saying, 'Oh no.' We don't have a lot of snow cover either, just an inch and a half to two inches of snow."

Average temperatures for the area are –20 C but temperatures have been hovering at and above zero in December.

Holobniuk says the road will be reopened if temperatures dip back down again making the road safe to travel.

A second 228-km stretch of winter road that Parks Canada maintains from Fort Chipewyan to Fort Smith, N.W.T., has also been shut down.

The closures mean people in Fort Chipewyan can only get in or out by plane trips that many of them cannot afford.

Many people in the area were blaming global warming.

So far, food or fuel shortages haven't been a problem, but at least one man is stuck with a rented car he can't return.

Will Fletts said he knew there was something wrong with the winter road when he drove a rental car home to Fort Chipewyan for Christmas.

He had to manoeuvre large ruts, and as he drove on a river, he could hear water flowing beneath the ice under his tires.

Now that the road is closed, Flett has to figure out how to get his rental car back to Edmonton.

"I'm trapped up here," Flett said.