Warming to hit "roads, pipelines" in Canada north

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Roads, buildings and pipelines in Canada’s north are at risk from global warming and the government must do more to protect infrastructure in the remote frozen region, an official panel said Thursday.

The Alaska Highway is surrounded by boreal forest running north towards Whitehorse, Yukon in this file photo taken June 21, 2007. REUTERS/Andy Clark/Files

Temperatures in the north -- which includes the Arctic -- are rising much faster than elsewhere in the world, and this comes at a time of increasing interest in the area’s vast mineral and energy reserves.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) said the permafrost layer had begun to melt, a development that can have disastrous consequences.

“Melting permafrost is undermining building foundations and threatens roads, pipelines and communications infrastructure,’ it said in a report, also citing the potential danger to energy systems, waste disposal sites and ponds containing toxic tailings from mines.

“The risk to infrastructure systems will only intensify as the climate continues to warm.”

The panel called for better building codes to help protect against the effects of climate change, better disaster planning and a change in insurance policies to encourage modifications to take into account the risks of warming.

The NRTEE -- which Ottawa set up in 1988 to provide it with information and advice on environmental issues -- also cited the risks posed by coastal erosion, storm surges, wildfires, blizzards and changing wind and snowstorm patterns.

The faster rate of warming is shortening the life of ice roads that supply massive mines like the diamond operation at Diavik in the Northwest Territories. Diavik is 60 percent owned by mining company Rio Tinto.

The NRTEE cited a 2009 report from Canada’s federal environment ministry which said more than C$5 trillion ($4.8 trillion) of aging infrastructure could be threatened by the changing climate.

The risk of damage is particularly dangerous because in many remote communities, there are no back-up electricity generating systems or roads or secondary hospitals.

In particular, the report said, communications and energy transmission towers were becoming increasingly susceptible to the risk of failure.

The changes in permafrost, which include sudden shifts in the ground, will make pipeline construction more complicated.

This could have implications for the planned C$16.2 billion 1,220 km (760 mile) Mackenzie Valley pipeline to ship gas from the Arctic to the western province of Alberta.

The main partners in the project include Imperial Oil Ltd, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp.

The report also said containment structures, which hold in toxic mine tailings and other materials, often rely on the integrity of permafrost. A release of toxins “could be environmentally and socially disastrous,” it added.


Editing by Mohammad Zargham