Climate change and the long-term viability of the World’s busiest heavy haul ice road

Donal Mullan, Graeme Swindles, Tim Patterson, Jennifer Galloway, Andrew Macumber, Hendrik Falck, Laura Crossley, Jie Chen, Michael Pisaric

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    Climate models project that the northern high latitudes will warm at a rate in excess of the global mean. This will pose severe problems for Arctic and sub-Arctic infrastructure dependent on maintaining low temperatures for structural integrity. This is the case for the economically important Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road (TCWR)—the world’s busiest heavy haul ice road, spanning 400 km across mostly frozen lakes within the Northwest Territories of Canada. In this study, future climate scenarios are developed for the region using statistical downscaling methods. In addition, changes in lake ice thickness are projected based on historical relationships between measured ice thickness and air temperatures. These projections are used to infer the theoretical operational dates of the TCWR based on weight limits for trucks on the ice. Results across three climate models driven by four RCPs reveal a considerable warming trend over the coming decades. Projected changes in ice thickness reveal a trend towards thinner lake ice and a reduced time window when lake ice is at sufficient thickness to support trucks on the ice road, driven by increasing future temperatures. Given the uncertainties inherent in climate modelling and the resultant projections, caution should be exercised in interpreting the magnitude of these scenarios. More certain is the direction of change, with a clear trend towards winter warming that will reduce the operation time window of the TCWR. This illustrates the need for planners and policymakers to consider future changes in climate when planning annual haulage along the TCWR.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1089-1108
    Number of pages20
    JournalTheoretical and Applied Climatology
    Issue number3-4
    Early online date28 May 2016
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017

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