‘Big shifts needed’ to get NWT infrastructure through climate crisis

Incremental changes in the face of climate change will save money in the short term but won’t result in the critical shifts needed, a new report declares.

The NWT’s climate is warming at almost three times the global average and permafrost, the frozen ground under much of the territory, is thawing in a way that significantly affects critical infrastructure.

A report from the Canadian Climate Institute states that while incremental adaptations already being made will save government spending in the short term, transforming the way infrastructure is built and services are provided in northern Canada will be critical to protecting communities from climate hazards.


“Our analysis shows that incremental adaptations can slow or delay costs in some cases but often only prolong inevitable infrastructure failure,” reads the report, released last week.

The report states runway, roads and buildings will be damaged by permafrost thaw, winter roads will become less safe and reliable, and water will “threaten the viability of some communities.”

Thaw under runways has been a concern in the territory for years.

Inuvik’s airport, for example, is undergoing work worth $22 million to widen the runway, improve its drainage and repair surface damage, all related to permafrost thawing beneath.


At Inuvik’s hospital, a system of thermosyphons designed to extract heat from the ground – meant to keep permafrost under the facility frozen – didn’t entirely work.

Dylan Clark, the new report’s lead author, deemed measures like these incremental and reactionary. He said they will only go so far in ensuring fly-in communities remain able to access critical services in future.

“Over the long period, in 30 years, those pipes and thermosyphons can kind-of delay permafrost thaw but they’re not going to prevent it,” Clark said.  

The report suggests governments must make longer-term, transformative investments in buildings and communities.


For runways, this could mean relocating airports, building gravel instead of paved runways, and improving weather forecasting to work with less predictable weather.

Roads could be relocated or the permafrost beneath them thawed before building.

Some systems ‘never worked’

Larger than this, though, are transformations contemplated by the report that change how services are provided in northern communities so their delivery is less reliant on increasingly vulnerable infrastructure.

Clark said this could include shifting further toward telemedicine, which would change how healthcare is delivered.

He also imagines “the use of big airships and blimps to bring food up to higher Arctic communities,” an idea that has been circulating in Nunavut for some time.

Any large-scale infrastructure adaptations will require changing federal and territorial financing structures to make it easier for smaller northern governments to access the cash needed.

Researchers working on the report heard from northern communities that funding timelines were often unrealistic and did not account for short building seasons or the complexities of transporting materials, and that application processes were to intensive for local governments with limited capacities.

“It’s going to need to be a toolkit of both incremental changes and broader or transformative changes to help people actually receive the services that they need,” Clark said.

The report concludes: “Transformative adaptations are a clear opportunity to fundamentally change infrastructure systems that are no longer working – or have never worked – for northerners and Indigenous peoples.”