Snow, water, ice and permafrost in the Arctic

Boom or Bust?

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What is likely to be the future for the circumpolar regions?

Prediction is very difficult. Especially about the future.

Niels Bohr

The New North book coverThe SWIPA website has a series of likely impacts, and a key word in many of these is accessibility. Laurence Smith's book 'The New North' develops some of the themes in the SWIPA report further.

Some stories from the future...

Physical changes affect ecosystems.

The herding of reindeer is a vital part of the existence and culture of the peoples of the North such as the Sami people. An Increased frequency of rain during winter causes a crust of ice over the snow, and makes it harder for the reindeer to find the food that the eat: the lichens that are beneath the snow.

Reindeer grazing on lichen
Reindeer grazing on lichen.

There can also be melting snow which then freezes again. This doesn't, as one might imagine, make the lichen harder to reach, but it means that the reindeer can't smell the lichen, and therefore can't find it. Colder temperatures are better for the reindeer. Some communities have already had to migrate to new areas where the problem is less common.

Accessibility and transport

You may be familiar with the series 'Ice Road Truckers', which follows the fortunes of people who drive lorries along the frozen Dawson Highway, Tibbitt-Contwoyto and Tuktyaktuk winter roads in Alaska. The reality is that people have traded commodities including furs and precious metals along these routes for centuries.

Frozen rivers and sea ice have offered an easy route through what is otherwise mountainous terrain with many inlets to add lengthy detours to any journey. Higher temperatures make some of these routes unsafe, making journeys more difficult and dangerous. They melt earlier and freeze later, and are destroyed by permafrost thawing and frost heave.

The availability of GPS (Global Positioning System) has made navigation much easier in a landscape with few landmarks, and a limited permanent road network.

Why might a compass be of little use for navigation in this part of the world?

Some of the cities of the North are likely to attract more people as temperatures warm, which will make them more habitable. The relatively new Nunavut territory is an example of a location which is growing rapidly. Its population growth is the fastest of any Canadian region and it is also much younger on average than the rest of Canada, so is likely to continue this growth. In the town of Iqaluit there is even a housing shortage.

Iqaluit, capital city of Nunavut

Nunavut flag
The Nunavut flag

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Skyline of Iqaluit, Nunavut, during the winter.

Look at the following factors which relate to life in and around Iqualuit, Nunavut. Some of them are benefits, others are problems. Sort them appropriately.

Nunavut is as big as Mexico, but has few settlements, and a very low population density.

Housing is in short supply, and is therefore expensive to rent.

Nunavut has a birth rate of 25 per 1000

Job opportunities are increasing.

More than a third of Nunavut's population is under the age of 15.

The indigenous population are able to improve their involvement in the nation more than previously.

Iqaluit used to be a Cold War US Air Force base and has grown dramatically since.

Food prices are very high, and are rising rapidly. Transport costs add a large premium to the cost of all products.

Some of the population of the town have problems with alcohol and drug abuse.

The main transport network relies on ice roads, which are becoming increasingly unreliable due to climate change.

Increased meltwater could mean extra opportunities for HEP schemes.

Contaminants that have been trapped in the snow could be released and find their way into water supplies.

Coastal communities are facing increased coastal erosion as the coastline thaws, and loses its shore-ice protection.

Some new buildings now have air conditioning - this was never fitted previously.

Overall, do you think the area is benefiting from this rapid growth of population?

What further changes should local politicians be preparing for?


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