“Change and Challenge” Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the GNWT Department of Transportation

In 2013, Deton’Cho Stantec prepared a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan for the Government of the Northwest Territories’ (NWT) Department of Transportation (DOT), which identifies areas where transportation infrastructure and services are at risk and ways to adapt NWT transportation networks for ongoing reliability, public confidence and safety. Impacts from climate change are already being felt in the NWT and are expected to be exacerbated in the coming years, including: temperature increases, changes in precipitation amounts, and changes in the variety and intensity of storms. These impacts translate into problems with permafrost stability, drainage, landslides, icing and visibility, and even the friction an airplane requires to use a runway safely.

The plan identifies areas where infrastructure and services are at risk, where new and robust data monitoring programs must be initiated to respond effectively as climate change impacts worsen with time. The scope of work completed included an assessment of transportation infrastructure assets and related operations of DOT to advance the understanding of how emerging climate trends will impact the NWT transportation networks. The formalized plan includes risks and associated management activities for all aspects of the transportation system – road, rail, marine, and air transportation.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Impacts from climate change are already being felt in the NWT and are expected to be exacerbated in the coming years. Key climate impacts are: temperature increases, changes in precipitation amounts, and changes in the variety and intensity of storms. These climate alterations have (and will) result in: changes in sea level, changes in the extent of arctic sea ice, changes to permafrost stability, and changes in runoff and drainage conditions. These impacts translate into problems with permafrost stability, drainage, landslides, icing and visibility, and even the friction an airplane requires to use a runway safely. Transportation infrastructure, maintenance, operations and safety have always been affected by weather conditions at any given time. However, statistical analysis and overwhelming anecdotal and reported information indicates that the conditions have changed and that our past practices may not be suitable in the future. It is critical and essential, as the economy and way of life in Northern Canada relies heavily on the transportation network. A reliable, multi-modal transportation infrastructure system reduces the cost of living in NWT, supports inter-community and social mobility, bolsters economic diversification, fosters effective resource development and reinforces Canadian sovereignty and security for northern regions. As climate change intensifies in the NWT, the impacts and risks to critical transportation infrastructure will grow, and reliance on passive observation or purely reactive coping measures to these impacts will not be enough.

Identifying Actions

The development of this plan included a comprehensive methodology performed by Deton’ Cho Stantec that included a review of relevant literature and studies on climate change; a robust sector-specific risk assessment; and stakeholder engagement. Staff from the Department of Transportation were engaged throughout the process to identify key risks and proposed adaptation actions. The scope of work included assessing all-weather roads, winter roads and ice crossings, airports, ferries and ferry crossings, river transportation and barge traffic and arctic marine and coastal resupply for past and projected climate impacts. Once key impacts were identified for each division the resiliency to address each impact was determined, resulting in a final list of implications for operations and maintenance. From here adaptation actions were identified to address each identified implication.

Implementation

The DOT has been adapting to the impacts of climate change for many years. To date this has generally been through expanded effort for maintenance and use of materials (sanding, plowing, repair). Some physical asset changes have been made (permanent winter road bridges, runway grooving). In some areas service disruptions have occurred (road closures and travel bans, flight delays). In the future the DOT must increase its adaptation measures. Routine maintenance may not be sufficient, more physical asset may be required, and service disruptions may become unacceptable.

This climate change adaptation plan identified high risk impacts that were then prioritized for implementation. The assessment work resulted in proposing several actions around data collection and research due to uncertainty. These findings will then help to inform future actions to ensure the DOT maintains their set level of service. A number of priority actions were identified and recommended for implementation. The actions are organized by impact area. A few examples are provided below:

  • Winter Roads: Where winter road sections are increasingly difficult to keep in reliable service, develop and assess alternative routing for these roads.
  • Airports: Conduct strategic snow clearing on runway aprons and shoulder areas to preserve permafrost integrity.
  • Ferries and Ferry Crossings: Apply remote sensing technologies to ice condition monitoring and spring ice breakup passage.
  • River Transportation and Barge Traffic: Relocation of navigational aids or mooring anchor points in response to shoreline erosion and slumping along the Mackenzie River.
  • Arctic Marine and Coastal Community Resupply: Stricter regulation regarding maintaining operational prudence and skill.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The DOT has been implementing areas of the adaptation plan overtime and completes a comprehensive review every 5 years. The DOT has been successful in identifying sources of funding for both operational and research needs however, this continues to be a challenge for implementation.

Next Steps

The DOT continues to update and readjust the plan as needed and measures progress using identified monitoring metrics. The actions have been included in the department’s budget forecasts and updated as new information becomes available.