North

Climate change may be challenge for Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway, researcher says

'Water management, and snow management I think are the two items in the long run that are very important,' says Chris Burn, who's spent decades studying the Dempster Highway.

Chris Burn has studied the Dempster Highway and says costs rise along with the climate

A washout on the Dempster Highway caused by heavy rains last August. Researcher Chris Burns says washouts, slides and icing have become more common on the Dempster, driving up maintenance costs. (Joe Bishop)

Researcher Chris Burn, who has spent decades studying climate, permafrost and Northern infrastructure, says engineers will need to keep an eye on how the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway changes in the years ahead.

"Water management, and snow management I think are the two items in the long run that are very important," the Carleton University professor said.

The 137-kilometre, $300 million N.W.T. highway opened Wednesday.

Burn, who has studied the Dempster Highway — which connects to the southern terminus of the new highway — says the Northern climate is changing and is already having a big effect on local infrastructure. The Dempster, he says, is seeing more subsidence and washouts —things often connected to thawing permafrost.

'The mean temperature's rising steadily, over the last 40 years,' said Burn. (Carleton University)

"In 1970, the mean temperature in Inuvik was about - 9 C, and now it's sitting at around about - 6 C. So, the mean temperature's rising steadily, over the last 40 years," he said.

"If it continues to rise at that rate, then it actually makes it very difficult to conceive of building things in the way that we did 50 or 60 years ago."

He notes that the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway was designed with consideration of climate change, and says a lot will depend on things like snow cover, and water disruption — and the impact on permafrost.

"If we get more snow, in addition to greater warming, then the stability of the permafrost near to the road is under some stress," he said.

Water will become an issue as the road disrupts the movement of surface water on the tundra.

"So [the highway] acts as a sort of little dam, all the way along the terrain, so any water that's moving down slope towards the road will pool, on the up-slope side of the road. And this, again, leads to more erosion of the permafrost."

The Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway under construction in 2015. 'If we get more snow, in addition to greater warming, then the stability of the permafrost near to the road is under some stress,' Burn said. (Submitted by James MacKenzie/Department of Transportation)

Dempster getting more expensive 

Burn says the Dempster Highway, which officially opened in 1979, has become significantly more expensive to maintain over the last decade. He says a lot of the increased costs can be attributed to climate-related maintenance.

"That would be snow maintenance, so clearing of snow; or dealing with slides or washouts where the road has been cut, or fixing culverts, or dealing with glaciers where there is water flowing onto the surface of the road," he said.

"Those expenses, since 2005, have increased by about $200,000 per year," he said, referring to the portion of the Dempster Highway that's in Yukon. 

Burn says there's an upside, though, to seeing highway maintenance budgets go up — it makes the cost of climate change more apparent.

"When it's possible to trace the impact of climate change onto the financial operation of a government, then I think there's more chance that people will see it as something that affects them directly."

Burn will be speaking about climate change and the Dempster Highway on Wednesday, at the Yellowknife Geoscience Forum.

Burn says the Dempster Highway, which opened in 1979, has become significantly more expensive to maintain over the last decade. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

With files from Loren McGinnis

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