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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Coastal Infrastructural Resiliency in Canadian Aboriginal Communities

Generally speaking, the effects of climate change are broad-reaching and are expected to be experienced on a global scale. It is widely known that several climate change impacts disproportionately affect certain geographical communities, however. Much of this rhetoric on climate changed induced vulnerabilities surrounds the inequities between the global north and south, as the global south currently is, and will continue to disproportionately experience the deleterious effects of climate change. There is less discussion surrounding the ways in which Canada’s northern coastlines disproportionately experience the retributions of climate change, however, and what this means for the aboriginal communities that live there.

Canada’s northern coastline in particular is incredibly vast, extending more than 176,000 km. Along the northern coastline exists three territories, as well as other regions that have land-claims agreements that have been settled with Indigenous populations (Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavik, Nunavut, Nunatsiavut, James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement). The North Coast region inhabits 58 communities, comprising over 70,000 people, of which the majority are Inuit, First Nations or Métis (Ford et al., 2016). Of the northern Canadian aboriginal communities, the Inuit people may be the most widely known population, as they live throughout much of the Canadian Arctic and subarctic within the territory known as Nunavut. These communities are concentrated along the coast for intuitive reasons, such as needing a reliable local water supply, means of transportation, and source of food.

It is well worth calling to attention that historically marginalized groups tend to live in areas that are disproportionately impacted by climate change, which is an important consideration in assessing the capacity of these communities to develop adaptive measures to the experienced effects of climate change.  Climate change has the capacity to dramatically exacerbate preexisting vulnerabilities, which are a function of geographic location and include a breadth of socioeconomic factors. Many of these coastal communities have a high sensitivity to climate change impacts, as they are situated on low-lying coasts and have infrastructure built on permafrost, economies strongly linked to natural resources and dependence on land-based harvesting activities.

The first part of this investigative report will describe the ways in which global warming produces physical changes in the land inhabited by these aboriginal communities, followed by the risks that these impacts pose for key infrastructure along the northern coast.  Identifying the degree of exposure and vulnerability of these types of infrastructure to climate hazards will better inform the approaches to support climate risk management and bring light to the current limitations that exist. Adaptation is such an important priority in this context due to the ways in which indigenous livelihoods are so deeply entrenched in climate, weather, and ecosystems. The interconnected relationship, one in which the western eye may never understand, of indigenous peoples with natural environments makes them especially sensitive to these impacts, as many of these groups subscribe to a “subsistence” lifestyle (Baird 2008). While adaptation actions are currently already being implemented in these affected northern communities, the efficacy of the existing responses have not been evaluated, although barriers to adaptation, including limited resources, institutional capacity and a lack of ‘usable’ research, have been identified. Publicly available information on how the private sector is approaching adaptation is limited, and there currently exists several limitations in scaling up the capacity to manage the resiliency of the infrastructure sector.

Moving forward, it is essential that the diverse additional options for adaptation are identified. The incorporation of local and traditional knowledge (TK) into developing future development on the built infrastructure front serves as a model as to how governments can use TK and community partnership to fortify climate resiliency efforts.

Experienced Climate Change Impacts:

The Canadian Arctic, in particular, is noted as a “global hotspot” for disproportionate experience of climate change effects (Ford et al 2014). Over the past 100 years, the Arctic as a whole has experienced an average warming of 1.5°C. Over the next 100 years, however, average temperatures are expected to increase by 5 to 7°C in Nunavut, with shorter winters, longer summers, and more extreme weather events (Ford et al., 2016). Climate change impacts are therefore already being experienced by the Inuit communities in Nunavut.  Many of the changes which have already been witnessed are projected to increase over time, and still more changes are projected to occur in the future. Northern coast characterized by a wide diversity of environments, and thus there are several physical changes that the Arctic will experience as a result of rising global temperatures. Notable physical changes include glacier retreat, sea-ice and lake-ice thinning, permafrost thawing, coastal erosion from wave action, changes in ocean currents, and a shifting range of plant and animal species (

Rising temperatures in the Arctic have rather intuitive repercussions on changes in sea ice conditions, which in itself provides as an important structural component of marine ecosystems that provides supporting services (Eicken et al., 2009; Euskirchen et al., 2013).  Decreases in sea ice have been observed for several decades, and are seen during every month of the year. Overall, Arctic sea ice is thinning dramatically, as the average spring ice thickness was 2.4 m in 2008 (Kwok et al., 2009), but is projected to be only 1.4 m by mid-century (Stroeve et al., 2012). Decrease in sea ice translates to increased fetch in many coastal regions, which results in larger waves and increased wind power at the coast. In turn, this can cause increased coastal erosion and flooding (Solomon et al., 1994; Manson & Solomon, 2007). High erosion rates will continue to force many communities to have to relocate along Alaska’s northernmost coast, bearing many socioeconomic impacts due to the displacement process (Lovecraft & Eiken, 2011). Further, it is important to consider that the most dramatic increases in fetch generally occur during September, which are the stormiest periods of the year (Atkinson, 2005; Manson et al., 2005).

Changes in sea level present another climate change induced risk experienced by the northern coasts.  Due to Isostatic rebound experienced by some land across the northern coast, in which land masses appear to be rising as the ice sheets that have depressed them during the last glacial period continue to melt, and conventional sea level rise elsewhere, changes in sea level vary greatly across the Canadian northern coast. Projected relative sea-level changes are highly variable between different locations and is much different from projections of global sea level rise. Projected changes in sea level rise can also include oceanographic changes and gravitational and crustal responses to present-day changes in ice mass that acts to reduce projected sea-level change across the Arctic (James et al., 2014).

Additionally, Increased frequency of extreme-water-level events are projected to occur as a direct consequence of sea-level rise. Reduced sea ice and increases in storm intensity will exacerbate these effects by increasing wave heights across much of the Arctic, and increasing the severity of these extreme-water-level events. The highly variable nature of the experienced effects of sea level rise should be taken into account when assessing the effects of sea level rise on individual communities. In addition to the effects that climate change has on water-consumption related infrastructure, climate change is also projected to impact water availability by melting glaciers, decreasing seasonal rates of precipitation, increasing rates of evapotranspiration and drying lakes and rivers existing in permafrost grounds (Evengard et al 2011). Increasing temperatures have also created conditions in which water quality is compromised as well, as pollutants are being released into the environment, lowland areas are being flooded by ocean water during storm events, permafrost thaw has impacted the turbidity of water resources, and many natural-occurring pollutants have emerged (Evengard et al 2011). In the long term, where sea level is projected to continue to fall (which applies to much of the North Coast region; the reduced elevation of mean sea level will contribute to reduced occurrence of extreme-water-level events over the course of this century. In the short term, however, changes to sea-ice extent and duration and to storm intensity in many areas are expected to lead to increased frequency and magnitude of extreme-water-level events and coastal erosion, even in locations where sea level is falling. In particular, with later freeze-up extending the open-water season into the fall storm season when higher waves may occur, the overall probability of a wave event increases. This is also when the seasonal depth of thaw in the beach face is close to maximum and hence the period when the coast is most vulnerable to erosion (Hansom et al., 2014).

In addition to changes in sea level, is it expected that the Nunavut land will also continue to experience changes in permafrost depth and coverage. Permafrost is essentially permanently frozen soil that occurs in high latitudes, comprising around 24% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost provides several ecosystem services, such as its high carbon storage capabilities. Increasing temperatures will contribute to the decreased fortitude of the permafrost layer, and much of this stored carbon will consequentially be released in the form of carbon dioxide and methane (Wunderground).Permafrost melt is also substantially weakening the structure of the ground material and therefore created conditions susceptible to erosion. Approximately 62% of the northern coasts consist of un-lithified materials that are more sensitive to erosion and deposition processes associated with coastal dynamics than coasts made up of more resistant bedrock, making them especially vulnerable (Ford et al. 2016). Additionally, permafrost thaw also increase the depth of the active layer, leading to changes in the flow, retention and absorption of water in the local area ( Much like the variability in the effects of sea level across different communities in Nunavut territory, the depth of the active layer varies across communities and is dependent on soil type and location, such as proximity to a river. Additionally, large-scale permafrost melt is contributing to the disappearance of lakes, landslides, and ground subsidence. High permafrost temperatures can intensify coastal processes, such as thawing of the shore face (Aré et al., 2008), block failure (Hoque and Pollard, 2009) and retrogressive thaw slumping (Lantuit and Pollard, 2008).

There is also emerging evidence that there have been dramatic changes in levels and types of precipitation, as well as an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in the Arctic (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, 2005; Manson & Solomon, 2007; IPCC, 20130; Akperov et al., 2014). Because there is a positive correlation between amount of open water in the Arctic and cyclone intensity, it is no surprise that storms are projected to be both larger and more powerful as sea-ice continues to decrease (Simmonds and Keay, 2009; Perrie at al., 2012).  The frequency of storm surges will become more likely along shallow coastal areas, as surge activity matches trends in sea ice levels (Vermaire et al, 2013).

Impacts on coastal infrastructure in Nunavut communities:

Canada’s northern coasts are experiencing rapid climate-change induced changes, which presents many challenges for the built environment, including roadways, buildings, airstrips, port facilities, water and waste-water treatment facilities, drainage infrastructure, as well as communication (transmission lines) and industrial facilities (such as mine sites). By identifying the effects that climate change impacts will have on the built environment, more informed assessments of the tools, approaches, and mechanisms to support climate resiliency on the infrastructure front can be played out. Preexisting infrastructure faces many opportunities for adaptation, while new infrastructure investments have the opportunity incorporate the consideration of a changing climate.

This effect of rising temperatures is important within the context of adaptive capabilities in the Nunavut territory because of the impacts thaw will have on infrastructure. Decline in sea ice in Nunavut communities in particular can be mainly attributed to the large-scale retreat and shrinking of local glaciers. This increased glacial runoff can result in fluctuations of water levels, but also changes in salinity in both salt and freshwaters. This can pose a multitude of problems in regards to availability and access to water, changes to water quality, all of which have several implications for municipal infrastructures in Nunavut communities.

Changes in sea level also pose a threat to coastal infrastructure, as increases in sea level can intensify shoreline erosion, and as a result decrease the stability of coastal areas for infrastructure. The spatial variability as to whether sea level rise of fall is being experienced creates varying levels of urgency for coastal infrastructure.

Permafrost thaw is projected to have the most dire on the structural integrity of the infrastructure in these coastal communities, as permafrost depth and coverage throughout Nunavut is expected to continue to decrease as Arctic temperatures rise. Much of the infrastructure that these Inuit communities are comprised of have been designed around permafrost conditions, and therefore the thawing of permafrost with climate change and increasing temperatures poses a considerable engineering and design challenge for future and existing infrastructure. The integrity of building foundations risk becoming seriously compromised, and roadways built upon permafrost may shift. This challenge is particularly critical for structures that were designed and built with the intent of having a long operating life, and also for those for which any degree of failure could pose serious public health and safety risks, such as roadways, bridges, runways, and waste or water containment facilities. This serves as one of the many ways that climate change has public health related repercussions. Permafrost thaw impacts both community source water, such as groundwater, rivers, and lakes, as well as water infrastructure, such as the water storage and purification systems that are built on top of the permafrost layer (Evengard 2011). Disturbances in the infrastructure have multiple human health risks in the context of drinking water, sewage containment, waste-water treatment, etc.

The amount, type, and patterns of precipitation in Nunavut respectively are expected to undergo changes as a result of increasing global temperatures, and frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is projected to increase as well. While it is difficult to predict actual tangible levels of precipitation, it is sound judgement to say that any degree of increase will have impacts on the infrastructure in Nunavut.

Community Adaptation:

For the northern region of Canada, developing adaptive capacity to the new conditions brought about by climate change is the most imperative intervention in the hopes that it will minimize the current and impending damages done by the hand of climate change.  Political commitments have been established to reduce the risks posed on Northern infrastructure and economies in the Pan-Territorial Adaptation Strategy (Governments of Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon, 2009). It implementation is supported by action plans at the local territorial level, but it is not prescriptive in specific policies or funding decisions. In the Nunavut terriority, the Nunavut Climate Change Partnership was established in 2008 in order to build capacity for adaptation planning. Under this framework, the impacts of climate change on various elements of infrastructure in the respective territory. Additionally, a report titles Climate Change Adaptation Planning: a Nunavut Toolkit (2011) has been put out, which the steps towards developing Climate Change Action Plans at the community level are outlined.

It is essential that in addition to engaging these policy responses, industry actors and governments further the development “of approaches to strengthen climate risk considerations in existing infrastructure”.

Collecting in situ permafrost helps to quantify changes and informs future planning, but this sort of intervention can prove to be both challenging and time consuming. As an alternative, other techniques are being developed and employed to identify permafrost degradation, such as using satellite data, as well as the ‘Terrain Analysis in Nunavut” project, which involves seven communities: Arviat, baker lake, Kimmirut, Gjoa Haven, Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung and Kugluktuk (Government of Nunavut, 2013).

This project identifies ground that is susceptible to climate change impacts using radar satellite images, digital elevation models, site visits, and community-based vulnerability assessment approach, which assesses the vulnerability of the built environment by integrating science with traditional knowledge (TK). This information is then converted into hazard maps to rank the suitability of land for future development. Planners and engineers can use these maps for developing municipal community plans. The incorporation of the community participation and TK emphasizes understanding the decision-making processes that govern how climate risks to the built environment are managed. This project understands that community engagement is a key aspect, and employs mechanisms such as information sessions, open discussions, radio interviews, public events to engage local businesses and the housing sector, working directly with community elders, who have a lot of knowledge on landscape changes and their experiences with walls cracking and shifting foundations. This is expected to give communities the tools and policies for better land management to minimize infrastructure failure due to permafrost degradation. It is important that local populations are directly involved in the long-term monitoring of their environment and have the agency to increase the competence of community members in land management and construction over permafrost terrain. It is important to remember that in order for these initiatives to be truly sustainable, they must be co-developed and implemented by the communities themselves.

For the Inuit community, developing adaptive capacity to the new conditions brought about by climate change is the most imperative intervention in the hopes that it will minimize the current and impending damages done to the Inuit communities. It is important to consider the socioeconomic standing of these communities, as well as their current history of current and pre-existing social marginalization, and accessibility to health services in the wake of the public health and well-being implications of warming temperatures (Furgal & Seguin 2006). The effects of climate change in these aboriginal communities create an imperative environmental justice case that requires immediate action to identify, develop, and implement adaptation strategies to cope with the public health effects of climate change in a culturally competent way. While Canada at large has shown substantial effort in the mitigation of climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and engaging in research to most aptly develop adaptation strategies, it is imperative that the Canadian government recognize the unique challenges that Northern Canadian aboriginal communities are facing now, and will continue to face in the wake of a changing climate.

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