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Will Polar Warming Close Canada's Famed Ice Roads?

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The famed Ice Road Truckers might become the Muddy Road Muckers if a new climate-prediction study that looks at the future of Canada's melting permafrost is right. Also, forget the Northwest Passage, at least for now. But new far-north shipping routes opening up might well take up the slack.

We've heard a lot the past couple of years about how climate change/global warming might open up northern Canada to farming and increased shipping. Not much about the downside.

As I reported in my MarketWatch Canada column this week, geographers at UCLA have released a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change saying that in the next 50 years, many of those ice roads you may have seen on the popular History Channel series (a new season begins this week) will be impassable as the permafrost melts. (One memorable Truckers episode featured a driver apparently risking his life to haul a truckload of salty snacks over frozen lakes to oil drillers. Risking your life... for Fritos?).

Global warming over the next 40 years "will cut through Arctic transportation networks like a double-edged sword, limiting access in certain areas and vastly increasing it in others," the UCLA study predicts. The sobering report added:

"As sea ice continues to melt, accessibility by sea will increase, but the viability of an important network of roads that depend on freezing temperatures is threatened by a warming climate."

If these scientific predictions hold true, it could have major implications, not just to remote Canadian and Alaskan villages that will become unreachable except by air, but also to industry. The study says implications could be "profoundly negative" for mining, energy and timber operations that now depend on winter ice roads.

Building roads and bridges on permafrost is a tricky, expensive business, as we highlighted recently in our MarketWatch story about the huge ($2 billion) new Mary River iron-mining project on remote north Baffin Island.

According to a Canadian news service, some 240,000 square miles of Canada -- most of it in the southern Northwest Territories and the northern Prairie provinces -- is predicted to become inaccessible by road by mid-century because of milder winters.

"This study would suggest that Canada has more to lose that it realizes," senior author Laurence Smith, a UCLA climate researcher, said in a telephone interview with Postmedia News.

"Popular conception has it that the Arctic is thawing, that it is opening up, and we'll go in there and get the resources. This study shows it is not as simple as that. In fact much of the landscape will become less accessible."

"The warmer climate could melt away winter lifelines," is the way the Toronto Globe and Mail put it.

Existing mines, energy and timber operations will suffer and some will likely shut down as transportation costs soar, the study from warm Southern California says.

One UCLA researcher recently told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation the permafrost is retreating north at a rate of five feet a year.

The researchers -- Stephenson, Laurence C. Smith and John A. Agnew -- based their work on a sophisticated climate model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. The model suggests the Arctic will see warming that far outstrips the rest of the world.

New shipping routes

The shipping-route predictions in this new study of climate change in Canada's north (where temperatures are predicted to keep rising at least 50 years) are just as interesting -- and will be of considerable interest to international shipping.

The bad news:

Smith says the other surprise for Canada is that the Northwest Passage" may not be worth all the hype and attention that gets devoted to it."

The passage through Canada's Arctic islands is in one of coldest parts of Arctic, where water circulation is not as "dynamic" as other areas, he says. In short, too many icebergs floating around.

"It'll be one of the last places to open up," says Smith.

The good news?

"It will be easier to go over the North Pole than through the Northwest Passage."

The UCLA study predicts that by 2050 three other Arctic shipping routes will be "fully accessible" from July to September to "Type A" vessels, with limited ice-breaking capability:

The "North Pole" route from the Netherlands to Alaska's Bering Strait; the "Northern Sea" route along the Russian Coast; and the "Arctic Bridge" from Churchill, Manitoba, through Hudson Bay, down past the southern tip of Greenland and up to northern Europe and Russia.

In fact, the Arctic Bridge is already fully open to marine traffic today, the researchers noted.

Go north, than head south

This should make it easier to ship mining and other supplies south by ice road rather than north, the Globe and Mail reports.

New mining proposals -- including the huge Baffin Island iron mine I noted above, as well as gold and uranium projects -- are increasingly planning permanent road and rail connections to tidewater. "In fact," says the Toronto daily's report on the new study, "increased maritime access could in some cases counteract warming tundra, since in the Northwest Territories, for example, supplies could be brought south on ice roads from the Arctic Coast, rather than up from Yellowknife. That could allow winter roads to be built in areas that are farther north and, therefore, more likely to be sufficiently cold."

David Barber, a professor at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair in Arctic Systems Science, told the Globe and Mail:

"At the trajectory we're on, we're going to be out of multi-year ice very quickly in the northern hemisphere. You'll be able to use the over-the-pole route very soon as well."

In the next few years, it'll be easier for Santa to deliver toys -- and Toyotas.