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Warmer temps threaten railway

Churchill shipping runs over peatland

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Rick Bello, a climatologist at York University, travels coach in a Via Rail train leaving Churchill. Bello has been conducting research in the area for over 30 years.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Rick Bello, a climatologist at York University, travels coach in a Via Rail train leaving Churchill. Bello has been conducting research in the area for over 30 years. Photo Store

CHURCHILL -- Global warming may extend the shipping season in Churchill, but it's also melting permafrost and softening the rail bed leading to the port, researchers say.

That will make it more costly to transport product to Hudson Bay by rail to load onto ships, say researchers.

"You might benefit from melting sea ice but you've got to get the product to and from port," said Rick Bello, climatologist at York University in Toronto.

Research shows climate change is now causing peat moss that has been frozen for up to 6,000 years to melt. "Churchill was always on continuous permafrost. Now people are drilling bore holes and not finding permafrost," said Bello.

'It's a double-edged sword'

-- Jeff McEachern, Churchill Gateway Development Corp., of global warming

It means the Hudson Bay line connecting Churchill to the rest of the province could sink in places. "It will mean higher maintenance costs, for sure. We haven't seen the upper end of what it's going to cost," he said.

Bello, who has studied Churchill for over 30 years, observed the situation first hand recently on a Via Rail train.

The peatland that covers the Hudson Bay Lowlands in Manitoba and Ontario is massive -- the second largest on the globe next to the Central Siberian Plateau. The top 40 centimetres or so of the Hudson peat thaws and refreezes every year.

But below that is peat moss about four metres thick that has stayed frozen for millennia -- until now.

Peat is dead organic matter that accumulates faster than it can decompose. The cold temperatures slow the decomposition to a near standstill, allowing matter to accumulate. But the thawing of frozen peat threatens to unleash massive quantities of greenhouse gases. "That additional organic matter decomposes and releases additional CO2 and that warms the whole planet," said Bello.

Another side-effect to global warming is increased rain events and lightning storms. "As the climate warms, there are more convective lightning storms and, therefore, more lightning fires. We're expecting that all along the treeline," which extends as far north as Churchill, he said.

Peter Kershaw, adjunct professor in the earth sciences department at the University of Alberta, who was in Churchill recently on a research project, agrees. "It's a big concern and so far not well-quantified," said Kershaw, of greenhouse-gas emissions from thawing peat. "That organic material is being made available for decomposition. It's out of the freezer and sitting on the counter."

One Kershaw study showed permafrost 15 metres deep in the Hudson Bay Lowlands has warmed by half a degree, from -0.9 degrees Celsius in the mid-1970s, to -0.45 degrees today. That half-degree warming penetrating so deeply into the ground is significant, he said.

Jeff McEachern, executive director of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp., and temporary media liaison for track owner OmniTrax, is aware that while global warming will extend the shipping season on Hudson Bay, if insurers agree, it will also increase rail-maintenance costs. "It's a double-edged sword," said McEachern.

He could not say whether track has deteriorated more quickly in recent years. Maintenance to the Hudson Bay line "is just a fact of life. It always has been," he said.

Kershaw said it's obvious the track has deteriorated because it takes much longer to travel by train to Churchill than it once did, although he conceded he is relying on anecdotal evidence.

Ottawa, the province, and OmniTrax invested $60 million into repairing the line in 2007.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Will the melting of the permafrost in Manitoba’s north drive home to Manitobans the need to change the way we live to reverse the global warming trend? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 A8

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Updated on Friday, July 12, 2013 at 6:25 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds question for discussion

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