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Climate Change Drives Up the Cost of Canada’s Northernmost Highway

Chris Burn at Carleton University is tracking the growing cost of maintaining Yukon’s Dempster Highway as warmer weather brings more landslides, washouts and other challenges.

Written by Erling Friis-Baastad Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
An RV drives past Tombstone Territorial Park along the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon Territory. AFP/Mint Images

It might seem strange that a physical geographer is attempting a cost analysis of climate change, but that’s exactly what Chris Burn is doing right now. The Carleton University permafrost specialist and supervisor of its new graduate programs in Northern Studies has sensed that “at the moment, climate change is really regarded as a special-interest portion of a government’s mandate or policy.” But, he warns, “very, very few of the activities governments undertake … are geared directly to reducing the amount of carbon emissions.” Meanwhile, as humans pump CO2 into the atmosphere, the financial cost of climate change grows.

Burn is currently searching through financial data provided by the Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works, as well as through climate records, to get an idea of how much rising temperatures can further boost expenditures. His specific focus is the Dempster Highway, the most northern road in the Yukon Territory. The 740km (460-mile) artery runs north from just outside Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. As it turns out, the legendary highway (named for the Mountie who discovered the sad fate of the members of the legendary Lost Patrol) is a piece of public infrastructure with some new and urgent stories to share, stories best told in numbers.

Burn estimates that climate change has caused the highway’s maintenance budget to grow by about $147,000 per year. That’s a considerable increase for a budget that typically amounts to a few million dollars annually. It’s also just a drop in the bucket of what climate change is expected to cost globally – a recent economic analysis put the worldwide cumulative cost at between $7 trillion and $90 trillion between 2010 and 2100.

Arctic Deeply recently spoke to Burn about his efforts to determine the costs of climate change for this essential piece of northern infrastructure.

Arctic Deeply: What’s an example of this highway’s value to a specific jurisdiction?

Chris Burn: Inuvik, NWT, a regional center for the western Arctic, depended on the gas well at Ikhil, just north of the town, for cooking and heating. Then the gas ran low and the well shut down. The response of the Inuvik gas company is to truck propane up from Alberta to Inuvik. The town is dependent on propane that’s trucked up the highway. They don’t have storage in Inuvik for more than about three weeks of supply, so if the road is closed, it’s a very serious problem. When Inuvik went over to natural gas it went over from diesel, and diesel used to come down the Mackenzie River by barge. We don’t, at the moment, have barge traffic like that of the 1980s and ’90s. The road is really critical.

Arctic Deeply: What is the ultimate goal of this number-crunching?

Burn: I want to know how much changes in weather conditions have meant in terms of operational costs on the highway over the past few years. My interests are partially ecological, but fundamentally I am trying to provide a dollar figure on how climate change is influencing expenditures on public infrastructure.

People are saying that there is going to be a cost and we have a fair idea of costs at a global scale, but very few governments operate at a global scale. Most governments operate at a very regional scale. I’ve looked at some of the data available from the accounting systems of the Yukon for the expenses of highway maintenance people. That doesn’t include capital cost now, just maintenance. The increase since 2005 has been about C$200,000 ($147,000) per year. That means that, since 2005, the increase that’s due only to climate change-related events is something like C$2 million ($1.47 million).

I’m developing a method of accounting for one road and I’m trying to find out whether that method could subsequently be employed for other portions of the highway network, but also because the Dempster is the most northern road in the Yukon and climate changes are greatest in the northern portion of the territory.

Arctic Deeply: The dollars being spent come from the accounting systems of a highways department. What sort of climate data is that being matched with?

Burn: Back in 2003, when the Mackenzie Gas Project was starting up, I got a group of people together to estimate potential climate change – annual mean temperatures – that we might anticipate over the 30 years that was proposed for that gas project.

A couple of weeks ago, I went back to those projections to see how the last 15 years had compared with what people projected – what we were thinking about then. The climate at the north end of the road – the Inuvik end – is changing more quickly than our greatest projections in 2003. In the south end of the road, in the Dawson area in the Central Yukon, the data are comparable with what we thought was going to happen. This tells me that our ideas about climate change, what we said was going to happen, is actually happening and, if anything, our predictions turned out to be under-predictions. We don’t have anywhere where the climate records are now underperforming the prediction.

Our understanding of the atmospheric system, and how we think it operates and will change as we increase the amount of greenhouse gas, seems to be borne out by the data we have from northern Yukon and the western Arctic. If anything our estimates are not sufficiently generous.

Arctic Deeply: What sort of highway damage is happening with climate change?

Burn: On the Yukon side of the highway, issues are really associated with three primary activities.

One: there is the significant increase in snow clearing that’s been taking place in the last 10 years.

Two: in the middle of the highway, near the Ogilvie River area, there have been serious landslides and washouts. These are associated with precipitation in summertime and a very rapid runoff of precipitation because permafrost prevents the absorption of rainwater. Much water makes its way into creeks and rivers. Last summer the road was closed for about two weeks because of 14 washouts.

Three: Freeze-up is taking longer. There is much more time in the fall during the freeze-up when there’s water running in the streams, but when water comes to the surface then it freezes because the temperature is well below zero. There are many more problems then, with what we call icings where the ice blocks (and damages) culverts and water that freezes on the driving surface can prove hazardous. With the increasing length of freeze-up periods there’s been increasing work required in the season.

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