Aboriginal communities in Ontario's far north are becoming increasingly isolated as rising temperatures melt their winter route to the outside world and impede their access to supplies.
TORONTO Aboriginal communities in Ontario's far north are becoming increasingly isolated as rising temperatures melt their winter route to the outside world and impede their access to supplies.
"The ice doesn't have its solid blue color any more," said Stan Beardy, the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents Ontario's remote First Nations. "It's more like Styrofoam now, really brittle."
"With the toxic waste moving north, and global warming, we don't have that solid ice anymore, and that's why we have problems with winter roads when it's mild."
The 34 First Nations reservations, scattered in boreal forest across northern Ontario, are accessible only by plane for much of the year.
During the coldest months between January and March, "winter roads" are cleared on the frozen network of rivers and lakes to let trucks deliver bulk supplies like fuel and building materials.
But average temperatures have warmed over the past decade, weakening the ice and shrinking the bulk-shipping season by several weeks, aboriginals say.
Beardy said the communities he represents have lost up to a month of heavy trucking time "because one or two degrees really makes a big difference" to the tenacity of the icy route.
About 20,000 status Indians live in the remote reservations and rely on winter shipments of heating oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel to power generating stations. The fragile ice has forced them to hire more trucks to carry lighter loads.
In the past 60 years, regional temperatures have increased by an average of 0.8 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter, and by 1.3 degrees Celsius in spring, according to Environment Canada, a federal government body.
That change has been more pronounced in the far north, where average winter temperatures have jumped 4.4 degrees Celsius over the same time.
Indeed, warming has speeded up since 1998, after which temperatures in Canada have consistently been "above-normal," said Bob Whitewood, a climatologist at Environment Canada.
Sea ice in Hudson Bay, Ontario's north shore, thaws and breaks up a week earlier every ten years.
"The changes in temperature are reflective of changes we're seeing globally," Whitewood said. "They are also in keeping with what we would expect with climate change -- a greater warming in winter temperatures and in the Arctic areas."
The crimped duration of icing has added a sense of urgency to the communities' bulk-shipping period.
"Once the hauling season opens there's a mad rush, 24 hours, because you might only have four or five weeks," Beardy said.