For many First Nations in northern Ontario, other than air travel, the only connection to the rest of the province is the seasonal winter roads built each year over frozen rivers, lakes, muskeg and land. As climate change continues to reduce the period during which winter roads are usable, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) gathered in Thunder Bay to strategize on how to keep their communities connected in a rapidly melting north.
In a fact sheet about the summit, NAN said climate change has “reduced the length of the winter road season from an average of 77 days to just 28 days or less in some areas.”
For several weeks each winter, tractor-trailers make their way to remote First Nations by flying through a series of crossings over frozen lakes and streams, delivering fuel, construction supplies and other large loads that would be difficult and expensive to transport overland. air. .
As warmer temperatures put the long-term viability of the winter road network at risk, some said it’s time to start looking at more permanent infrastructure.
Roy Moonias, project coordinator for the Neskantaga First Nation, said anyone coming to or leaving Neskantaga has to cross three kilometers over a lake.
“It’s always a challenge for us to cross that lake, because we already lost a community member – we went through the ice,” Moonias said.
Neskantaga has been asking the government to help them build a bridge across that segment, Moonias said.
Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines sent a staff member to discuss $5 million in winter road funding to be provided by the province. But Moonias said he doubted the funding could cover a single bridge, much less make a dent in the other winter roads connecting more than 30 First Nations.
“That’s a pittance,” Moonias said. “That’s not even a crossover.”
First Nations communities arriving by air throughout northern Ontario rely on the winter road network to truck items that would be expensive or nearly impossible to transport by air. Some communities are rushing to get a year’s supply of diesel onto the roads before it thaws in the spring.
The warm weather of recent years has led to shorter seasons and slushy conditions, and prompted calls for permanent infrastructure to make transportation safer.
The winter road season will continue to shorten as climate change continues to affect the weather, said Merrina Zhang, a senior research engineer at the National Research Council. Northern Canada is suffering a more severe impact than many other parts of the world, Zhang said, and will continue to see greater fluctuations in temperature in the coming years.
Winter roads are affected not only by the heat, but also by the volatility of the weather, Zhang said.
“This is a mode of transportation that needs persistent cold and predictable cold,” Zhang said. “The weather is becoming more unpredictable. It warms up earlier and freezes a little later.”
While winter roads may not be a viable option forever, Zhang said more data can help experts develop better ways to protect them.
Its “data wish list” includes ground-penetrating radar data, ice thickness data and route information.
“Anything that can help us understand the details of how winter roads are built, what makes each road unique compared to others, that can help us advance our understanding of how it is changing, what it is now, how it could change in the future. “.