“These roads are the only way our people can survive,” said Alvin Fiddler,
grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 indigenous
communities in northern Ontario, including 32 that are isolated from Canada’s
highway network and electrical grid and depend on the winter road system to
replenish stocks of fuel, food and building materials. Some of those
communities nearly ran out of diesel fuel because an ice road opened
several weeks late, Mr. Fiddler said.
ON THE TLICHO WINTER ROAD, Northwest Territories — In Canada’s northern latitudes, the frigid winter means freedom. That is when lakes and rivers freeze into pavements of marbled blue ice. For a few months, trucks can haul fuel or lumber or diamonds or a moose carcass to the region’s remote communities and mines that are cut off by water and wilderness, reachable for most of the year only by barge or by air.
But Canada’s ice roads — more than 3,300 miles of them — have been freezing later and melting earlier, drastically reducing the precious window of time that isolated residents rely on to restock a year’s worth of vital supplies, or to simply take a road trip.
Even in the depths of winter, increasingly frequent storms and thawing have made the roads more dangerous and sometimes too weak to use safely, prompting the authorities to close them for days at a time. “It’s taking longer for everything to freeze up, and the ice isn’t as thick,” said Wally Schumann, the minister of infrastructure for the Northwest Territories. “Ice roads are the lifeline of our communities, and now they’re at risk.”
The Canadian authorities say that climate change is causing an array of problems, from increased melting of sea ice to the thawing of permafrost in the Northwest Territories, which is warming four to five times as fast as the global average.
Mr. Schumann said climate change was also to blame for the troubles with the ice roads, which are built anew each year by hardy crews using heavy-duty plows, radar and water sprays to add layers of smooth ice that can support even the weight of a tractor-trailer full of mining equipment.
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