Adapting Sub-Arctic Communities and Infrastructure to a Changing Climate

In 2019, the Town of Churchill began development a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which is a framework and strategy to build resilience and respond to the risks, vulnerabilities and opportunities Churchill and the surrounding region face in a changing climate. Churchill is a popular tourist destination, appearing in the New York Times list of “52 Places to Go” in 2020. It is also a place where people live and connect to the land. Harvesting from the land is how many First Nations members in Manitoba and Inuit in Nunavut are able to secure food for their communities. Many residents depend on the land to support their livelihoods. However, that land is changing through climate change. That means even the slightest change to the land can cause a very real impact on people’s lives. Climate change projections show that Churchill will experience an increase in both summer and winter temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, shorter sea-ice season, permafrost thaw, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. The Climate Change Plan aims to set a future direction using best practices and the most up to date climate data, and to engage municipal staff, stakeholders and the public in conversations about climate change impacts and receive feedback. The Plan identifies how the climate is likely to change locally and includes projections of climate change impacts to Churchill and the surrounding region. It includes a risk, vulnerability and opportunity assessment of projected climate impacts, as well as an adaptation action plan for implementation that takes into account co-benefits.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Northern communities face many unique challenges that are not usually considered by Canadians living in the South. Fluctuating costs of energy, remoteness, periods of inaccessibility, a cold harsh climate and ageing and inefficient infrastructure. One of the goals of the plan is to increase the resilience of Churchill as a northern community and its capacity to adapt to a changing climate. Churchill has substantial infrastructure investments by Northern standards, with the Hudson Bay Railway, Port of Churchill and the Churchill Airport. All three of these pieces of infrastructure are impacted by a changing cryosphere. For example, the railway that sits precariously on discontinuous and continuous permafrost. Or, the port, which must face the demands of an increasing shipping season as the result of declining sea-ice in the Hudson Bay. The costs associated with maintaining this infrastructure are increasing as the climate changes. This throws into question commercial viability for both the railway and the port. For climate projections, Churchill uses the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) of RCP8.5 until 2050 and 2060. The projections show hotter temperatures, wetter weather, more frost free days, more lightning, and higher winds. According to climatedata.ca, annual precipitation is expected to increase 10% by 2050, under a high emissions scenario. There may also be an increase from 96 frost-free days to 113.5 frost-free days by 2050. Churchill is rising; parts of Hudson Bay’s coastline has been rebounding up to 15 millimetres each year. As a consequence of this, sea-level in Churchill has fallen at a rate of about one metre a century. Other changes include: later freeze-up and earlier break-up of sea ice; decreased snow cover; permafrost loss.

Identifying Actions

The Town of Churchill used the Building Adaptive and Resilient Communities (BARC) framework developed by ICLEI Canada to develop their Climate Change Plan.The town’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and action plan was developed through consultations with internal and external stakeholders. These meetings brought together the knowledge and diverse backgrounds of community members in order to answer some of the toughest questions, such as what is climate change going to mean for the land in the next 10, 20, 30 years? Although the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the possibility of in-person stakeholder consultations and community engagement, the municipal Climate Change Plan was eventually finalized and adopted by the mayor and council in the fall of 2020. Churchill has identified several common goals that emerged throughout the planning process. Actions to address each of these goals are designed to be cross-cutting and help to achieve each of the other goals as well as the overall mission of the plan. These goals represent early action on a longer-term agenda in areas where the municipality has the authority and ability to enact change to minimize climate change risks and build resilience.

  • Align and integrate within the strategic plan
  • Maintain public health and safety
  • Strengthen buildings and key infrastructure
  • Minimize disruptions to service delivery
  • Protect biodiversity and natural assets
  • Build resilience and capacity within the region
  • Demonstrate reconciliation on the ground

Implementation

The Plan proposes seven interconnected climate priorities. The priorities and examples of climate actions are provided, below:

  1. Align and Integrate Within The Strategic Plan – e.g. Integrate climate change considerations into new and existing plans and policies when appropriate
  2. Maintain Public Health and Safety – e.g. Update emergency management plans to account for more
    frequent and intense weather events that last several hours
  3. Strengthen buildings and Key Infrastructure – e.g. Project proposals regarding infrastructure need to take into account future climate projections
  4. Minimize Disruptions to Service Delivery – e.g. Update building codes to take into account “best practices”
  5. Protect Biodiversity and Natural Assets – e.g. Educate and encourage local businesses and the tourism industry to implement adaptation actions to prepare for our future climate
  6. Build Resilience and Capacity Within the Region – e.g. Work with regional stakeholders to develop a watershed plan
  7. Demonstrate Reconciliation on the Ground – e.g. Give Indigenous peoples meaningful roles at climate change decision-making tables and amplify their leadership capacity

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

This climate change adaptation plan is just the first step to Churchill understanding its risks, vulnerabilities and opportunities. With the chronic and acute physical risks of climate change looming, policy based solutions alone will not be enough to tackle the impending climate crisis. This plan simply allows for guidance’s so that the town can make the right actions and implement a mix of policy and planning projects with infrastructure based projects to build resilience. In some cases, adaptation actions or a series of actions can reduce the damage or costs associated with climate change and take advantage of windows of opportunities. However, no risk can be completely eliminated through adaptation alone. Decision-makers need to anticipate and plan for consequences that are unavoidable in the short and medium term, while working to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions in the long-term.

Next Steps

The Town of Churchill in collaboration with other stakeholders, needs to develop a means to adopt, fund and implement the adaptation plan. Concrete actions have been identified but they need to be prioritized in an internal planning process along with, timelines, and costs; clearly identified roles and responsibilities, including who is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the plan and accountabilities for implementing actions; and requires monitoring and reporting on the plan’s progress. Projects planned to date should be informed by the assessment of climate change risks contained within the plan.