Advertisement.

Environment

Maps show where NWT communities’ climate risks lie


Maps showing the NWT municipal facilities considered to be most at risk from climate change are included in an independent report made public by the territorial government.

Schools, fire halls, and water treatment plants are among more than 30 buildings across the Beaufort Delta and Sahtu said to be at a high risk because of potential permafrost thaw as the world warms.

The highest risk level means a “definite vulnerability” exists that could cause infrastructure to fail if action is not taken.

Advertisement.

The report, completed in July by engineering consultants WSP, was published to the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs’ website in December.

WSP, working to Maca’s remit, analyzed only municipal facilities and not the likes of highways and airports, which are considered to be separate. Highways and airports are also understood to be vulnerable to shifts in the underlying permafrost.

Adapting a method developed by a national engineers’ association, WSP evaluated the vulnerability of each NWT community’s infrastructure to climate change – ranging from threats like increasingly severe wildfires and floods to larger accumulations of snow or changes in temperature and wind.

Permafrost is considered the most pressing threat. All of the highest risks identified by WSP are in the Beaufort Delta and Sahtu, and are the result of uncertainty about how permafrost will change.

Advertisement.

Permafrost thaw, the report states, could “impact the stability of civil and municipal as well as energy infrastructure” by causing roads to slumps, pipes to fail, containment structures like sewage lagoons to break, and buildings to lose their structural integrity.

“Under the influence of climate change, permafrost thawing is becoming one of the main issues that the NWT will have to face in the near future,” the report states, referencing earlier research.

“Some consequences are already visible in several communities where foundations of buildings and road infrastructure are rapidly deteriorating.”

Examples given in the report include Paulatuk’s school, which, the report states, sank eight inches in 2012 “despite being recently built.”

In Inuvik, the report continues, “it is estimated that 40 to 75 percent of the buildings are likely to incur foundation damage due to permafrost thawing.”

Schools, fire halls, and water treatment plants were identified as high-risk facilities across Sahtu and Beaufort Delta communities, in part because their failure would place basic services in jeopardy.

By community, high-risk facilities identified in the report are:

  • Colville Lake’s school (the community’s water treatment plant, while not given a high-risk label, was said to be located in an area with a “high sensitivity to thawing”);
  • schools and fire halls in Délı̨nę, Fort Good Hope, and Tulita;
  • Norman Wells’ school, fire hall, and health centre;
  • schools, fire halls, and water treatment plants in Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk, and Ulukhaktok;
  • schools and water treatment plants in Paulatuk and Tsiigehtchic; and
  • Inuvik’s school and Aurora College buildings, two healthcare buildings including the hospital, water treatment plant, and fire hall.

See the foot of this article for a full list of maps, which pick out municipal facilities and colour-code them according to risk level. Different shapes are used to indicate the various climate risks considered the most threatening toward any given facility.

Floods, wildfires, snow load

While permafrost was considered the readiest threat – capable of inflicting “major damage” on buildings and a danger that could “shut down the operations of a critical service” if a water treatment plant were affected – the report also highlighted floods, wildfires and heat, coastal erosion, and snow load.

Given the ever-present threat of coastal erosion in Tuktoyaktuk, a phenomenon that has leaders contemplating how to relocate the community, the fact that erosion in Tuk was ranked a second-tier “moderate-high risk” only underlines the severity of the concern regarding permafrost thaw.

The aftermath of severe flooding in Jean Marie River in May 2021. Photo: Stanley Sanguez
A territorial government photo shows a prescribed burn operation at Plummers Lodge during the 2014 wildfire season
A territorial government photo shows a controlled burn operation at Plummers Lodge during the 2014 wildfire season.

The risk of flooding in regions like the Dehcho was demonstrated vividly and destructively in 2021. Wildfire season, which caused huge problems in megafire summers like 2014, has been quieter recently but is considered cyclical in nature. Hotter summers could also bring droughts, heat waves, and higher operating costs through demand for services like air conditioning, the report warns.

Snow load, fifth on the report’s list, is considered a lesser immediate threat but has still been responsible for major infrastructure failures in the past.

In 2004, the report recalled, the roof of an Inuvik school collapsed “due to a record-breaking build-up of snow.”

“Consequences could have been catastrophic,” the report stated, “as the collapse happened only 40 minutes before Grade 7 to 12 students were scheduled to begin classes.”

Increased precipitation in northern regions is expected to be a feature of a warming planet in the decades ahead, potentially making the snow load on buildings more of a problem.

The report does not present precise timelines for anticipated failure of facilities. WSP does, however, recommend that the high risk to some facilities result in immediate action.

The engineers make 26 recommendations regarding permafrost alone, while noting that better permafrost data for communities – work being undertaken by the NWT Geological Survey – is required.

Overarching recommendations include increased monitoring of permafrost conditions near critical infrastructure, detailed climate risk assessments for all projects as they are being designed, and a revision of the same risk assessment report in five years’ time.

Maps by community

Select a community below to review the one-page PDF that shows a map of local infrastructure considered to be at risk. Remember that airports and highways were not included in the study. A key on the right of each map explains the symbols and colours used.

To better understand the maps, you can also consult the full report, which includes sections in its appendix for each community.

Advertisement.