Marooned by Climate Change

Posted on January 17th, 2012 by Shravya Reddy

 Source: NOAA Can you imagine being cut off from the rest of the world, not knowing how long it will take before you can secure food and essential supplies? For many indigenous communities in remote areas of Manitoba, Canada, this isn't some one-off event. This is their new normal. For them, warmer winters mean they have more trouble building ice roads, a mode of inland transportation that they've depended on for generations. 

When I first learned about the impact of climate change on transportation in Arctic regions, I had to Google "ice roads" to get a better understanding of how important these were to communities. (After all, I grew up in the dusty plains of North India). Ice roads are temporary roads and ice pavements constructed across frozen ground, lakes and rivers, using compact snow and ice. They enable transport of equipment and cargo for construction and development, as well as food and other supplies in much of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Russia, Finland and Sweden, serving regions with no permanent year-round access.

When ice roads aren't possible, northern communities have less access to surrounding regions. This leads to scarcity of groceries, fuel and construction supplies, which drives prices up. Communities have to rely more on more expensive air cargo services. In Manitoba, for instance, some 2,500 shipments of staple items are transported each year by truck over 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles) of icy road instead of being flown in at great expense. Often, this also makes the main source of livelihoods in this region -- mining, timber, and energy – uneconomic because of reduced access to outside markets.

Source: DOELast summer, a study by UCLA researchers warned about these very impacts from warmer winters caused by climate change. The study found that all Arctic countries are likely to suffer steep declines in accessibility inland (between 11% and 82% less access than now) because of lost ability to construct ice roads.  In Manitoba, this is already a reality. In 2010, some aboriginal chiefs declared a state of emergency when warm weather melted winter roads, stranding some truckers and causing fuel shortages. This year, the window of opportunity to construct ice roads that connect about two dozen aboriginal communities is smaller than ever. Ice roads across frozen ground, lakes and rivers that have typically been open for 60 days are now usable for about 20. According to press reports, Grand Chief Harper of the First Nations declared a few weeks ago, "We've got to prepare for the worst." His words were prescient, because just a few days ago an emergency was declared again in the region. 

What these communities are facing is almost incomprehensible to me. Having lived in large cities, I've always has easy access to groceries, supplies and services. Moreover, I've always had multiple modes of transport to choose from – subway, bus, cars, bicycles, walking, etc. How about you? Have you ever lived in remote areas where global warming impacted your access? Or, like me, can you scarcely imagine what life would mean if you found yourself stranded by climate change?

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