July was not kind to the North.
A heat wave made the north coast of Alaska as hot as Key West, Fla. Barry Prentice lost his airships when that savage windstorm hit St. Andrews Airport. Omnitrax, with a stroke of a pen, became Nullitrax, as it cancelled grain shipments to Churchill and put the skids under both the port facility and the town.
All three reactions to these events really need to be viewed from a perspective where we can see what’s left of the forest, not just the side of one tree — and considered in a time frame that goes beyond next Tuesday.
Of course, weather fluctuates — but the July heat wave in the North follows a year of record-breaking temperatures across North America and around the world. (However hot it was here, it cracked 54 C in Iraq.) Ice in the Arctic is vanishing, and Greenland’s glaciers are receding at a rate far beyond projections. All this means rapidly rising sea levels and extremes in local weather — such as the 85 millimetres of rain in two hours that flooded out parts of fire-ravaged Fort McMurray at the end of the month.
Climate change is real. The trends we are seeing are not going to reverse themselves — things will only get worse. We need to adapt to changing climatic conditions and to do whatever we can to mitigate the causes of global warming — at the very least to buy ourselves more time.
What these changes mean for the North is winter roads supplying northern communities in Manitoba will very soon be a thing of the past. The seasons have already tended to be shorter and less predictable, and northern heat waves will mean thinner ice and less permafrost as a base. If the Manitoba government intends people to continue living north of 50, some other way of supplying communities in most of the province must be found — and quickly. Air freight is just too expensive for most items or requires cargo space small aircraft in Manitoba can’t provide — at present, I know of only one aircraft specially modified to carry sheets of plywood, for example, making even house construction in northern communities an onerous task.
All of this explains the importance of Prentice and his airships — simple, reliable and flexible technology, able to transport large and heavy loads long distances without worrying about muskeg that thaws or ice that just won’t freeze as deep as it should. Filled with helium, these dirigibles are safe to operate and (unlike aircraft) need little in the way of a landing area. They could also operate virtually year-round.
The fact more has not been done to support his work or to fund the trials necessary to figure out all the details will be regarded in the near future as catastrophically short-sighted — despite warnings from at least 2003 that climate change will seriously affect northern transportation routes. It seems like such an obvious answer to disappearing winter roads, which need to be rebuilt and maintained every year and even now only provide access to some of the northern communities a fleet of airships could supply.
Short-sightedness about life in the North is not new, however. My old neighbour Svein Sigfusson had a similar response to his ideas for winter roads many years ago and — after building more than 3,000 kilometeres of them for more than 30 years, the contracts were cancelled by the provincial government in 1971. Without those roads, think about how different life would be in northern Manitoba today.
Call it Perimeteritis if you like, but the provincial government is responsible for the province, not just everything a couple of hours’ drive from Winnipeg. It needs to demonstrate a vision for the whole of Manitoba. Given many of the communities in the North are First Nations, it’s also about justice and real reconciliation.
This brings us to Omnitrax and the future of Churchill. A warming Arctic means open sea year-round. Manitoba is at the centre of the continent, with shipping on both coasts that will be affected both by rising sea levels and vulnerability to more frequent and more severe storms.
An interior port, well-connected by rail to the rest of the North America, would be a gold mine for business and for the province as a whole.
I agree with Premier Brian Pallister — no bailouts. We should buy them out instead. If Omnitrax won’t sell what they are now telling their shareholders is a losing proposition, then find alternative rail routes to Churchill and make their investment worth even less. Sooner or later, the shareholders will force a sale at bargain prices — and allow the current government to repair the damage done when its predecessors failed to do the right thing.
As for the problem of thawing permafrost and muskeg, we need to find new ways to stabilize the railroad track year-round. Check out the possibilities of proto-cell technology, which uses organisms to create solid structures as one approach.
Good science, common sense and the public interest. There is a way, if we really want to find it.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.