Climate Change in the Hudson Bay Complex: Opportunities and Vulnerabilities for the Port of Churchill’s Marine Operations

In 2016 members of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) published a climate impact assessment for the Port of Churchill which considers the implications of rising temperatures, increasing winds and changes in sea ice on shipping activity in the Arctic area before outlining related vulnerabilities and opportunities. The document is informed by a robust review of relevant scientific literature, an examination of recent and ongoing CEOS projects as well as a series of interviews with representatives of the Port of Churchill’s central stakeholders. Information from these diverse sources enabled an identification of climate related vulnerabilities and opportunities for the Port of Churchill. Vulnerabilities to the Port of Churchill come in the form of increasing wind disruptions, a lack of hydrographic data and limitations to the Canadian Coast Guard’s search and rescue services. Opportunities identified centred around the possibility of an extended shipping season in light of climate warming and changes in sea ice. An extended season could mean the introduction of new exports and an increase in the export of current goods, among other benefits. With vulnerabilities and opportunities identified, the authors highlight a number of preliminary programs and research avenues to be pursued in order to better enable the safe and responsible increase in shipping activities at the Port of Churchill. Among these highlighted programs are those which look to clarify and delineate northern transportation corridors or to regulate the introduction of non-native species into arctic waters. Finally, the authors suggest that a more robust study of storm frequencies and windstorms in the Hudson Bay Complex be pursued. The Next Steps section below provides a more detailed examination of proposed measures and areas of future research.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The study used climate data from a variety of sources including Environment Canada, National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), and academic papers. Authors also considered ongoing and recent publications from the Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) itself. Data analysis was supplemented by interviews with representatives of the Port of Churchill’s central stakeholders all of which was intended to provide insight on how infrastructure and operations may be altered in light of a changing climate. Interview outcomes will be considered in depth in the section titled Identifying Actions. Analysis of average temperature data for the area revealed a number of trends which will have significant impact on the shipping trade in Churchill, Manitoba. Among these is a projected increase in temperature of approximately 1℃ per decade between 2012 and 2061. Observed and projected increases in temperature translate to changes in sea ice formation and breakup, with the potential of extending the shipping season significantly. Additional climate data considered also projects an extension of the typical storm season of August to December further into the winter months thanks to longer open water conditions. Analysis of historical data from the NCEP as well data from Environment Canada weather stations in the area shows that wind speeds during the shipping season (July to November) have increased since 1970, while projections suggest wind related disruptions to port operations could become more common.

Identifying Actions

As part of the project, the authors have identified potential opportunities in the Hudson Bay Complex. These opportunities have been made apparent through an analysis of relevant climate data as well as through interviews with representatives of the Port of Churchill’s central stakeholders which took place from 2014-2016. Finally, a federal-provincial taskforce on the future of Churchill also provided valuable insight to action identification. Climate projections indicate an increase in temperatures, slower sea-ice formation and faster dissipation leading to a longer open water season. Stakeholders interviewed offered their opinion on how operations may change in light of this changing climate. Firstly, interviewees anticipate an imminent push by some to formally extend the shipping season. They also see opportunity for increases in grain shipment and re-supply activity (transporting dry cargo to many locations in Nunavut) as routes becoming clearer. Stakeholders also anticipate new shipping activity related to potash and even oil along with the introduction of imports to the Complex. A salient factor which may complicate action identification is the inherent difficulty in predicting “typical” sea ice freeze-up and breakup times as they vary from year to year and long-term.

Outcomes and Monitoring Process

The climate impact assessment for the Port of Churchill has unearthed a number of challenges that may become more salient to the Hudson Bay Complex in the future. Firstly, authors have identified that the area lacks detailed and up to date hydrographic information for the areas outside of well-established shipping routes. In light of this deficiency, the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) along with the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) are considering developing “Northern Marin Transportation Corridors” to increase shipping safety. Next, the study has also found that artic ecosystems for which the Complex is one, are particularly sensitive to invasive species. With the potential forthcoming increase in shipping traffic in the area, the likelihood of the introduction of non-native species (in ballast water or attached to hulls) will rise. The authors note that because of this the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat expressed the need for a monitoring and mitigation system to be introduced. The study also points out that the Canadian Coast Guard is currently challenged to provide ample search and rescue services in the Arctic region, a situation that is likely to be exacerbated as traffic increases in the area. Finally, on a broad level authors note that “(t)he challenge for the Port of Churchill will be to capitalize on the Arctic opening that is underway while safely and sustainably navigating the many changes to the Arctic environment brought about by climate change and increasing development.”

Next Steps

The article has two distinct sections identifying potential next steps given the findings of the project. They fall under climate related vulnerabilities and climate related opportunities. Within the vulnerabilities section, the authors note that a lack of information regarding aspects of the climate in the Hudson Bay Complex should be rectified in the future. In particular, there is currently a lack of information related to adverse weather and icing processes. A more robust understanding of current and future storm frequencies along with a more detailed study of winds in the complex broadly and near unloading sites specifically will better aid port operations. Ice hazards throughout the complex and ice formation within the Churchill River estuary will also have implications for shipping in terms of the timing of each shipping season as well as the safety of travel. A study of the former would provide a better understanding of the dynamic process of ridging and rafting which works to strengthen sea ice. In terms of opportunities, much revolves around an extended shipping season. In order to capitalize on a potentially lengthened shipping season (which would have a positive impact on the re-supply of remote communities), The authors highlight the need to build upon the evidence presented in this article to ensure that the findings pointing to a lengthening open water season are as robust as possible. Secondly, they suggest that sea ice forecasting be improved in order to increase safety in the Hudson Bay Complex. Preliminary study suggest that recent advances could enable accurate ice forecasting 6-8 months into the future (as opposed to the current 30-day forecasts provided by Canadian Ice Services).


Link to Full Case Study

Additional Resources

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