The cost of everything from milk to gas in northern Manitoba could be driven up as warmer winter weather threatens ice roads that stretch thousands of kilometres into the most remote communities.

The winter roads — crucial lifelines for about two dozen fly-in aboriginal communities — are usually being prepared by now across frozen ground, lakes and rivers. But aboriginal leaders say work on the icy arteries isn’t even close to beginning and the fuel supply is dwindling in some communities.

'Some of the communities are really low on their fuel already. We’ll have to start flying in things.' —Grand Chief David Harper

Environmentalists warn climate change jeopardizes the future of winter routes that stretch some 2,200 kilometres. But some chiefs have more immediate concerns, wondering how their communities will make it through this winter.

"This is our lifeline," said Grand Chief David Harper, who represents Manitoba’s northern First Nations. "It means a lot to us. If the winter road season is cut down to less than a month, it takes a toll on the community."

Meteorologists have predicted a milder winter this year partly because of moderate El Nino breezes coming from the Pacific Ocean. Harper says Manitoba elders have been issuing the same warning for some time.

"Sure enough, that’s what we’re seeing," he said. "There is supposed to be some cold weather on the way, but how long that cold weather is going to last is another factor."

Without an adequate ice buildup, northern communities lose the one chance they have to bring in fuel and major supplies — everything from building materials to bulky groceries — at a reasonable cost.

Otherwise, goods have to be flown in at great expense.

"It drives the cost of everything up," Harper said. "Some of the communities are really low on their fuel already. We’ll have to start flying in things."

Average temperature rising

Environmentalists say mild winters are becoming more common because of climate change. The Manitoba Eco Network says warmer weather not only makes ice roads less safe for drivers, but threatens to further isolate First Nations.

Roads that had previously been open for 60 days are now only usable for about 20, it says.

Curt Hull, project manager with the network’s Climate Change Connection, said data shows Manitoba’s average temperature is rising, especially during the winter months.

"That’s the biggest factor that affects how soon winter roads can be opened and how late they can stay open. That duration has been shrinking at a fairly alarming rate and consistently over time."

The culprit is greenhouse gases, Hull said. But even if the world reduces its reliance on fossil fuels, northern communities are going to have to adapt.

"The changes in climate have been happening, and will continue to happen, more to the southern and northern latitudes. Even though the average global temperature is increasing, it’s increasing more at the poles."

Provincial officials are more optimistic about the winter roads this year.

Ron Weatherburn with Manitoba Transportation said every year is different. Preparations haven’t begun yet this season, but he points out some northern lakes are starting to freeze, and most of the work usually takes place in mid-December to early January anyway.

Some of the roads are actually constructed on land, Weatherburn said, which makes colder temperatures a little less vital.

"This is Manitoba, and [we expect] the weather will turn colder and we’ll be able to get these roads built," he said.

"We’ve had other years where it’s been warmer this time of year and the contractors ... are pretty good at getting on to things once the weather gets cold. They can get them built fairly quickly."