Northern communities will have to spend more to ensure buildings, roadways and other structures can withstand the melting of permafrost, which can cause landsliding or "slumping" as shown in this August 2009 photo from the Mackenzie River delta. (Rick Bowmer/Canadian Press)

Landslides and low water levels in the Northwest Territories in the wake of record-breaking warmth have prompted calls for changes in infrastructure planning.

"It's really important that community decision-makers and government decision-makers are prepared to spend a little bit more to make sure that the design [of structures such as buildings and roadways], in terms of preparation for permafrost degradation, is as strong as possible," said Doug Ritchie, a spokesman for the environmental group Ecology North, in the wake of temperature changes that Environment Canada called "unprecedented."

In the Northwest Territories this year, spring temperatures were almost six degrees warmer than average, surpassing the previous record set in 1998 by half a degree. Climatologist Dave Phillips said in his 40 years with Environment Canada, he's never seen such a rapid change in temperature.

"In my business, you break records by a tenth or a hundredth of a degree, not by a full half-degree or a degree," he said. "This is unprecedented, this kind of warming that we've seen in the last six months."

Since spring, record low water levels have been recorded in the Slave River at Fort Smith, a community near the Alberta boundary.

Ritchie said the melting of permafrost has led to erosion along riverbanks and landslides along the sides of mountains in the Beaufort Delta area. He said similar landslides throughout the North could take out roads and highways.

The Yukon government is already spending millions fixing roads affected by landslides, erosion, and washouts caused by extreme weather such as heavy rainstorms, Ritchie said. Such extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent as the weather gets warmer in the North.

Ecology North has received funding from both the federal government and the Northwest Territories government to work with communities and plan for climate change.

Ritchie said people need to adjust their thinking when it comes to infrastructure. That means making sure buildings and roadways can withstand not just today's climate, but the expected climate 40 years from now, he added. Buildings will need to withstand the shifting of the ground caused by melting permafrost.

Rather than relying on computer models, he said, engineers should visit individual sites and assess changing local conditions.

Members of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities have just started a project to collect information on the effects of climate change around the territory.