Thawing permafrost causes $51M in damages every year to N.W.T. public infrastructure: study

An advocacy group has put a price tag on the heaving roads and leaning buildings ubiquitous to the Northwest Territories.

Federal funding to address problem could stimulate economies in N.W.T. communities

A building now set to be torn down in Inuvik, N.W.T. Some of the piles that support it have sunk and others have heaved up, leaving the building dangerously unstable. Thawing permafrost causes approximately $51 million in damage to public infrastructure every year in the Northwest Territories, according to a new study. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

An advocacy group has put a price tag on the heaving roads and leaning buildings ubiquitous across the Northwest Territories.

According to the Northwest Territories Association of Communities, thawing permafrost is causing approximately $51 million worth of damage to public infrastructure every year, and only the federal government has pockets deep enough to fix the problem.

Sara Brown, the association's CEO, presented these numbers at the Geoscience Forum in Yellowknife on Thursday.

"This is at a scale neither local or territorial governments can manage," she said during the talk.

The hardest hit communities, she says, are areas where permafrost is thawing the fastest, such as in the Beaufort Delta region. Tuktoyaktuk is especially at risk because the permafrost in that area is so soft.

"It's at the tipping point now," she said. "They very heavily rely on the permafrost for their foundation so that makes them very vulnerable."

The study is the result of a collaboration between the association, Tetra Tech engineering consultants, and consultancy firm Enviroeconomics.

In order to get these figures, a team of geotechnical engineers and environmental economists determined each community's sensitivity to thawing permafrost, then determined the sensitivity of each public building and stretch of road in those communities. Then, they estimated the costs of repairs to permafrost-related damage and did a cost benefit analysis of repairs.

Former Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya was in Yellowknife from Tulita for the Geoscience Forum. He was shocked to learn the costs associated with thawing permafrost.

"Oh my God, where are we going to find that money?" he asked. "And how long will it take to get this type of money into our communities?"

Yakeleya said he sees buildings in Tulita shift every year and agrees putting a number to the problem can help secure federal funding.

"It's sorta like putting the lights on in a dark house and saying you know, 'We need to prepare — let's get real, let's get serious about this,'" he said.

A silver lining?

Brown's talk wasn't all doom and gloom.

She said if the federal government were to invest in permafrost related construction, it could provide an economic stimulus to N.W.T. communities.

"A whole industry can revolve around that," said Brown during her talk.

She also pointed to opportunities for advancements in remediation techniques for permafrost damaged buildings and the development of innovative equipment and material that works better in permafrost areas.

Brown will be travelling to Ottawa this week to meet with a number of federal ministers. She said economic issues associated with climate change will be front and centre during her visit.