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Winter roads are a lifeline in the north. Climate change is making them more untenable

The Fort Chipewyan winter road has been subject to fluctuating temperatures.  (Submitted by Bruce Inglis - image credit)
The Fort Chipewyan winter road has been subject to fluctuating temperatures. (Submitted by Bruce Inglis - image credit)

When the weather turns cold, and the ice starts to form, residents in Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta start to see an easy way out of their community.

The annual formation of a 177-kilometre stretch of winter road connecting it to the energy hub of Fort McMurray in the south is a lifeline for businesses and residents with goods and fuels transported by trucks.

But warmer winters are delaying the opening of the road and shortening how long that road can safely stay open.

"We are seeing climate change first hand here," says Mike Mercredi, a councillor with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

"It's unpredictable when the road opens, unpredictable for how long it'll stay open," Mercredi said. That puts a lot of fear in members of the community, he added.

It's one of the reasons many in the region are advocating for a year-round road. A permanent road would save community members a lot of time and energy, he said.

"If it keeps going at the rate we're going, we're probably not going to have a winter road in 10 years. So the talk of a year-round road has to be a very serious one," Mercredi said.


The winter road season has shifted since 2012. (CBC news)

 

Fort Chipewyan is considered a fly-in, fly-out community. There is no year-round road residents can use to travel to Fort McMurray. The road closed on Tuesday for this season.

The winter road allows people to drive to larger cities like Fort McKay to stock up on goods, access medical services more easily and visit family and friends.

Over the past 10 years, the day the winter road opens has been getting delayed.

In 2013, the winter road was open for 123 days after it opened Dec. 7. This year it opened on Dec. 20 and was open for 97 days.

Keith Smith, director of public works for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said with rising temperatures the winter road season is being delayed, but so are the load limit increases.

Those are the set weights allowed to drive up and down the road. It's important for bringing up large loads of fuel and goods. With warming weather, the opening date for heavier trucks can be pushed back.

The load limits are important, because the community trucks in fuel to run vehicles and heat homes over the winter, used throughout the year. The heavier loads also bring in goods.

"The season's being delayed, the milestones in which the load limits [increase] are being delayed and there's points in time where we're having to do temporary closures," Smith said.

There were temporary road closures in 2020, 2021 and 2023. There were none from 2016 to 2019.

Employees at the market. Cathwyn Philpotts, bottom row, second from the left, says they've worked out the kinks since they opened the doors.
Employees at the market. Cathwyn Philpotts, bottom row, second from the left, says they've worked out the kinks since they opened the doors.

Employees at the market. Cathwyn Philpotts, bottom row, second from the left, says the market has had to adapt to the changing road conditions. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Cathwyn Philpotts, executive director of the K'ai Tailé Market, said the market brings in fresh food subsidized by Nutrition North Canada by plane. But 60 per cent of the non-subsidized food is trucked in over the winter.

Trucking food in is about 75 per cent cheaper than flying it in, Philpotts said, which is what the market does during the months when the winter road isn't open.

Because the winter road is opening to larger vehicles later and later in the season, the market now hauls many of the goods on smaller trucks.

"To avoid risking not being able to bring food in, most of our food we've run in on smaller loads just to make sure we have it … regardless of what mother nature might bring," Philpotts said.

"I think a year round winter road would be a beautiful thing."

The warming experienced in the Wood Buffalo region is being seen across Canada.

Nathan Gillett, climate research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said from 1948 to 2016, there's been warming across Canada in the winter, which has been the strongest in the north and west of the country.

According to the Canadian government, "each of the last three decades has been warmer globally than any decade on record."

Between 1948 and 2016, global average temperature increased by about 0.8 C. Canada's average temperature increased by 1.7 C in the same period.

Gillett expects to see warming continue in Canada at a similar rate over the next 30 years. He said there will be years that are anomalously cold or warm, but the trend overall is a warming in the country.

Mercredi said talks of a permanent road have been happening for most of his adult life, but its importance has never been clearer.

Smith has been responsible for the road for four years and said the weather hasn't changed how the road is built, but it does push back the opening date.

Smith said one of the biggest challenges is the ice formation on the sandhills. It's at the south end of the ice road. The road is built on top of sand, but when the sun starts to melt the ice, the ground becomes unstable. It's typically the area in the road that dictates the opening and closure dates.

It's typically the area that deteriorates first, Smith said.

The road would also be important for emergencies, like the evacuation the community faced last year, Mercredi said.

Infrastructure Canada said in a statement that the department is "ready to work with the Government of Alberta and other partners to process funding applications for infrastructure projects that connect communities and improve climate resilience, road safety and trade."