Northern Canada — Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut — represents 40% of Canada's landmass. The vast, highly diverse terrain ranges from the boreal forest in the southwest to the tundra landscapes and glacier-covered mountains of the Arctic Archipelago.
Most of northern Canada’s 104 000 residents live in the three territorial capitals of Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit; the rest are distributed among some 100 other communities with diverse languages and cultures, most with fewer than 500 people. Just over half of northern residents are Aboriginal. Traditional and subsistence activities, including hunting, trapping and fishing, are important to local economies and ways of life for many northerners. Mining, forestry and oil and gas development generate most of the region’s revenue, while tourism and public administration are growth industries.
During the past 50 years, the climate of the North has undergone dramatic changes. The western and central Canadian Arctic have warmed by 2 to 3°C, with the largest changes observed in winter and spring. These are among the fastest rates of warming anywhere in the world. Precipitation has increased throughout the entire North — by up to 25% over parts of the tundra.
Transport truck crossing deteriorating ice road, Liard Ferry crossing near Fort Simpson, Liard River NWT.
Temperature and precipitation will continue to rise in the Canadian North throughout this century, with the largest temperature changes occurring at higher latitudes. The extreme northwest may warm by 10°C, or more, by 2080. Sea-ice cover will continue to shrink and, according to some estimates, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2050. These changes in the north will also have significant impacts on global climate.
The signs of climate change in northern Canada are everywhere: sea-ice is thinner and breaks up earlier in the spring; glaciers, ice caps and permafrost are melting; migratory birds arrive sooner and depart later than normal. Some native plants and animals are becoming scarcer, some appear less healthy, and a few have disappeared from specific localities. Species never before seen in the North are being reported. Storms are stronger and occur more often, and the weather in general is becoming less predictable.
The Arctic climate is warming at a rate almost twice as fast as that experienced in the rest of Canada.
These changes are affecting many aspects of life in the North. Changes in the region’s snow and ice cover, and the increasingly unpredictable weather are making travel across land and sea ice riskier, limiting access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In combination with ecosystem changes, such as shifts in the distribution of fish and animal species, these alterations impact residents’ ability to safely secure country foods, an important source of health and well-being. These changes also have important implications for the protection and management of wildlife, fisheries and forests. For Aboriginal people, climate change is having irreversible impacts on their culture and traditional ways of life.
Northern infrastructure is also being impacted by changes in climate. In many areas, reduced sea-ice cover, combined with sea-level rise, has led to increased coastal erosion that threatens communities and, in some cases, cultural heritage sites.Melting permafrost is undermining buildings and infrastructure and weakening retention ponds that contain mining wastes. The viability of winter roads, which are critical for supplying many remote communities and industrial sites, is being threatened by warmer winters.
The shipping season in the North may increase by 10 days by 2020 and 20 to 30 days by 2080.
More navigable marine waters, due to diminishing sea ice and longer summer shipping seasons, will have a profound impact on northern Canada. They will present new opportunities for economic growth related to natural resource development, transportation and tourism. However, increases in Arctic shipping also present environmental risks, increased demands on search-and-rescue services and security concerns. The economic and cultural impacts on Arctic communities and individual well-being will be far reaching.
The primary (solid line) and alternative (dashed lines) routes for the Northwest Passage, shown on a map of historical average ice conditions for September 3 (1971-2000)(Environment Canada).
What’s Being Done?
Many northern communities are drawing upon a wealth of traditional knowledge, western science and extensive local experience to better cope with a changing climate. Climate change is an urgent issue, and numerous workshops and community meetings have been held across the North to discuss possible solutions. Examples of proposed measures include moving parts or all of some coastline communities, reinforcing vulnerable coastlines, setting up networks for inter-community trade to ensure country food access, and establishing communal freezer programs. However, barriers can sometimes limit the ability of individuals and communities to implement adaptations.
Examples of current adaptations in northern Canada include the following:
- Climate change is now being considered in the design of most major projects in the North, such as pipelines, mines, roads and containment structures.
- Forest managers are adapting their practices to promote sustainability, particularly in response to the spruce bark beetle infestation in the southwestern Yukon.
- People travelling or working on the land and sea ice are taking extra precautions, such as carrying additional supplies and clothing on trips, purchasing all-terrain vehicles, and using global positioning systems for navigation and satellite phones for emergency communication, when going far from the community.