The Arctic is in a state of flux. The devastating impact of a rapidly-changing climate is creating a new landscape in the region, melting polar ice and eroding coastlines.
The melting ice is opening the door to an increase in Arctic travel, both for domestic and foreign interests. In 2016, the first foreign-based cruise ship travelled through the Northwest Passage. And in 2017, a reported 385 voyages were taken through Canadian waters in the Arctic, up 22 per cent from the previous year, according to the Government of Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework.
Securing our Northern most Border
The Arctic waters were already the subject of global discourse, with three countries making claims on territories that could threaten our perceived territory in the North. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean have a 200-nautical-mile limit of ownership of the waters. However, those same countries can apply for an extension beyond those borders if they can prove that the ground underneath is part of their land base (part of their continental shelf). Denmark and Russia have laid claims that portions of the Arctic region belong to them based on the UNCLOS definition, with Canada submitting its own claim in 2019. There is also an issue surrounding the Northwest Passage itself, with the United States declaring it as an international waterway while Canada declares it as part of its sovereign waters.
Territorial disagreements, coupled with additional ship classes that can access Arctic waters, are making it increasingly difficult to police the region. The Canadian Forces has a limited number of assets, both from an infrastructure and personnel perspective, to address the growing challenges. There are six bases spread across the three territories, four of which are located along potential northern marine traffic routes: Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, as well as Alert, Nanisivik, and Resolute in Nunavut. These six bases cover an area of over 3.92 million square kilometres.
No Civilian Support for Military Endeavours
In a time of crisis, the Canadian Forces could look to access non-military assets to provide additional response support. But there is a problem: non-military infrastructure in the North is almost non-existent in most areas.
The infrastructure deficit in Northern Canada is staggering. As an example, Nunavut, which makes up over 20 per cent of Canada’s land mass, is facing a massive struggle with infrastructure. A report released in October 2020 on Nunavut’s Infrastructure Gap, commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., found that the state of infrastructure in the massive Arctic territory was appalling. The average length of a runway in Nunavut is less than half the length of an airport runway in a major city in Canada, limiting the types of planes that can safely land there. There are no highways or rail lines anywhere in the territory. None of their power is renewable; they rely on diesel shipped or flown in to power the communities. 85 per cent of their water treatment infrastructure is in poor condition. And despite 24 of 25 communities being on the water, only one has a port (there are 1010 ports in Canada). Our northern communities lack the basic infrastructure to support any growth, development, or security in the Arctic region.
Changing Conditions Exacerbate the Issue
Just building basic infrastructure isn’t enough. With climate change rapidly altering the Arctic landscape, a different approach must be taken to the way the North is built. Billions of dollars of investments are needed to support these communities with proper infrastructure— infrastructure that can also be utilized by the military in times of crisis.
Generating a comprehensive climate change risk analysis is imperative to understanding how to invest today’s limited financial resources on infrastructure, whether military or civilian. Climate change risk and resilience assessments are providing the information that northern communities and territories need to prioritize expenditures and build with the next decades’ climate impacts factored in.
In addition to the coastal erosion issue mentioned earlier, another key risk factor in the north is permafrost degradation. This is an area of study for scientists across Canada, working to understand where permafrost exists, how quickly it degrades, and what impact that it has on the surface. One example of where this has been a factor is at the Inuvik Airport, one of the most important infrastructure assets in the far north due to its provision of food and supplies to smaller communities in the region. It is also home to a Department of National Defence Forward Operating Location. Settlement issues related to permafrost degradation caused runway issues at the airport in both 2013 and 2016, causing a reduced level of service until repairs could be made. Subsequent upgrades made to the airport by the Government of Northwest Territories were conducted using climate projections for a 2080 time horizon, allowing the government to assess risks over the 50-year expected lifetime of the project components. It is these types of assessments, now mandatory for Infrastructure Canada projects valued at over $10 million, that are vital to ensuring we build in the North with future impacts in mind, not just those in the present.
Strengthening the Arctic region will take a multi-billion dollar commitment to the construction of new military and non-military infrastructure. As the North opens to greater international marine traffic and the threats that come with that, it is imperative to make the commitment now, not later. And to make those investments count, it is critical to appreciate the current and future climate risks that could impact the integrity of these assets, as building future-ready infrastructure is what will help us meet the challenges that lie ahead.
To learn more about how WSP Canada is addressing issues related to climate change in Canada, please visit our Climate Hub.
To learn more about how we are working to create a more secure country, check out our Security Consulting page.
To discuss the services that WSP Canada can provide for the defence industry, contact Daniel Doran.