Churchill, Man., weighs risk of climate change on future of port, railway

Policy makers and potential investors in the Churchill, Manitoba, port and railway have emphasized advantages climate change could have for shipping in the North. But as the warming water remains ice-free for longer, thawing permafrost under the railway threatens the lifeline to the port.

Warming climate opens up opportunities for port but could pose problems for railway

The Port of Churchill, which was closed by Omnitrax last year, was Canada's only rail-accessible deepwater port on Arctic waters. (CBC)

The promise of a longer shipping season for the now-closed port in Churchill has policy makers and potential investors speaking optimistically about the opportunities climate change might create for the northern Manitoba town in future.

As sea ice melts and the water on Hudson Bay clears, there are proposals to reopen the port.

But at the same time, the land underneath the railway that feeds the port, a line already damaged by spring flooding, will become less stable as permafrost melts.

"It is a paradox, of sorts," said Danny Blair, a professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and researcher with the Prairie Climate Centre.

When spring flooding washed out sections of the Hudson Bay Railway line, it cut the only land link to Churchill, a community roughly 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, which was already struggling after the closure of the port last year.

This section of the Hudson Bay Railway is just one of several areas between Gillam and Churchill that are impassable after flooding. (Omnitrax)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said any redevelopment plan for the railway needs to include the port, as the two are inextricably linked.

"We need to begin to understand better what the future of that port is. That relates to the discussion around rail and other discussions around a potential road link as well."

Pallister said the Port of Churchill is Canada's only inland deep-sea port and a part of the mid-continental trade corridor.

"The port has intrinsic advantages. With climate change, the port will have a broader season, potentially, than it's had."

Advantages for port, challenges for railway

The warming climate has already added a month to the shipping season in Hudson Bay compared to 30 years ago, said University of Manitoba climate scientist David Barber.

The number of ice-free days has been increasing every year by an average of about 1.14 days.

Between 2030 and 2050, Barber said some models predict sea ice in the bay could start to look more like that found in the Baltic Sea, where shipping is open year-round.

The port's owner, Denver-based Omnitrax, shut down the port in summer of 2016. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

But as the water in Hudson Bay warms, so does the land, and that raises questions about viability of the railway, much of which is built over permafrost.

Researchers at the Prairie Climate Centre used 12 different climate models to create the Prairie Climate Atlas, which gives different predictions of how much the climate could change depending on how much carbon dioxide humans emit over the coming decades.

Even if countries around the world take aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions — the main driver of global warming — the researchers predict Churchill could see the average number of days per year that reach -30 C or colder fall from roughly 44 to 23 by 2050. By 2080, that number could fall to 10 per year.

That has a big impact on the stability of the railway.

"That railway, a good portion of it, is built on permafrost and it's always been a challenge to make sure that railway bed is solid and safe and stable," said Blair. "Even more so in the future — you can't rely upon that solid ground that is based upon permafrost."

A warmer climate not only means more annual precipitation, but more variable precipitation. Instances of extreme rain and snowfall — such as the two massive late-winter snowstorms leading to this spring's flooding that washed out the railway in at least 24 places — could become more common.

"We will get some really heavy precipitation events in the future climate," said Blair.

Groups looking to buy railway, port

Two separate groups have expressed interest in buying the port and railway from Denver-based Omnitrax, which took over ownership and operation of the port and railway in 1997.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence is co-chair of one of those groups, One North — a consortium which includes municipalities and First Nations in northern Manitoba, along with the Kivalliq Inuit Association in Nunavut. He's among those who see opportunities in the loss of sea ice for his community.

"Even now, when I look out on the bay, you see bits and pieces of ice. It's not like it was years ago," said Spence.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence is co-chair of One North, which includes municipalities and First Nations in northern Manitoba, along with the Kivalliq Inuit Association in Nunavut. (CBC News )

He believes that expertise exists that can find ways around the problems climate change will cause.

"With climate change, yeah, it brings you challenges but it also brings you opportunities, so I think we can get through that."

Chief Arlen Dumas of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation leads the Missinippi Rail Consortium, the other First Nations group looking to purchase the rail line. He dismissed the idea that climate change will hurt the viability of the railway.

"I think that everybody's going to have to adjust to how we move forward, but the issue of a rail line is not made any more difficult," he said.

Challenges stem from original construction

Many of the current issues facing the railway stem from the way it was built. When construction began in the 1910s, the line was originally supposed to run from Thompson to the Nelson River estuary near Port Nelson, where it was soon discovered the land was still shifting, Barber said.

"Part-way along in the building of it they realized that Port Nelson is sedimenting in and it was not a very good location to have a port," he said.

"So they turned the rail line north and went up to Churchill, and there really wasn't much thought to what the substrate was that they were building the rail line on."

Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, said these problems could have been avoided if the line had been built farther west, where the ground is rocky, rather than over peat bog and permafrost.

Barber points to Russia, which has numerous rail lines crossing its northern territory, as well as the highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, as proof that land linkages can be built in Arctic and subarctic regions.

Crew members standing on the gravel where the two sides of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway met in April 2016. (EGT Northwind)

Omnitrax has said it could take until next spring to repair the damage to the rail line, although the Keewatin Railway Company, a First Nations-owned company, estimates it could be done much sooner.

Despite the challenges facing Churchill, Prentice said ignoring the issue is not an option.

"People who talk about 'just close the port and be done with that, move the people' — no, I don't think that's long-term or reasonable at all. I think that there is a long-term future, but we have to do some creative thinking."


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