Future of northern roads on thin ice, study finds

Rising temperatures could make ice roads the road less traveled in the High North.

Unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide are contributing to rising global temperatures and a new study finds the warming atmosphere may lead to a transit slow down in at least three High North countries.


 A new study finds the ice highways of the High North are melting steadily, putting the future of transport in the Arctic Circle at risk.

The report comes just shy of the one-year anniversary of the Earth’s CO2 levels reaching 400 parts per million - their highest point in 55 years of recorded history and, possibly, since the last major greenhouse epoch three million years ago.

The last time CO2 levels were this high it would have been possible to travel around the Arctic by horse or camel, both of which were living in the area at the time.

Today, without livestock populating the northern tundra, ice highways are vital access points in remote areas of the High North. But they are vulnerable to the rising mercury; for which the CO2 levels are partially responsible.

Ice roads have been a steady way of life for northern communities from Russia to Norway to Canada, but it’s possible that future generations will never experience the hair-raising drive for themselves. 

The joint study, River ice responses to a warming Arctic—recent evidence from Russian rivers, co-authored by scientists from the University of New Hampshire and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg, studies six large rivers that cut through northern Russia.

The study found ice thickness and the duration of the transport season for the rivers plunged between 1955 – 2012. The Severnaya Dvina, Lena and Yenisey rivers lost approximately seven days of usability while the Ob at Salekhard season is now shorter by 20 days.

The Lena River ice thinned by 73 centimetres. Yenisey lost 46 centimetres from its ice depth.

But Russia isn’t the only country whose northern communities are reliant on ice roads.

In Canada, there is a move away from seasonal transit passes to all-year road access to northern communities.

In the summer months cross-country transport is laborious and costly. It becomes much easier when the northern rivers freeze and become frozen roads, sometimes metres thick, for cars and trucks. Journeys that used to take days can be shortened down to hours as vehicles cut across waterways that used to block them.

In January of this year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper broke ground on an all-weather highway that links the Arctic coastal community of Tuktoyaktuk with the larger northern town of Inuvik.

Prior to the highway being built the area was dependent on ice roads during the long winter months. This project will, community leaders hope, be the first of many in the area.

On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation in the North West Territories closed the winter ice crossings on the Dempster Highway. This closure cuts off direct access to Tuktoyaktuk.

In Norway there are dozens of ice roads crisscrossing the frozen tundra. The Tana River in Finnmark supports two of them.

Northern communities in Alaska, Finland and Sweden also depend on ice road access in the winter months.

Though the study was confined to a handful of Russian waterways, the authors believe the trend is reflective of what is happening in other Arctic Circle regions.

However, little to no research has been conducted in these countries to paint a more complete picture of how ice roads outside of Russia are being affected by climate change.