TORONTO, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Global warming is making it easier for resource companies to ship supplies through Arctic waterways in northern Canada, but harder for remote communities to truck in food on winter ice roads, mining industry officials and indigenous leaders said.
Shifting transportation patterns in the far north due to the changing climate are expected to reduce the cost of mining and other projects in once frozen coastal areas, while raising the price of goods for residents and businesses operating inland.
Ice roads, built on frozen waterways, have until recently provided crucial winter transportation links to northern communities which have no regular road access.
But rising temperatures are melting the ice sooner, making it harder to maintain the roads, cutting communities' crucial supply lines and forcing some to use aircraft to bring in food early and late in the winter.
Many of the people living in northern Canada are indigenous and a high proportion are poor, so will find it hard to meet higher transportation costs for food and other essentials.
Indigenous Inuit, once referred to as Eskimos, make up more than 80 percent of the roughly 35,000 population of Nunavut, Canada's northernmost, biggest and least populated territory.
Like many northern Canada residents, they live on "country food" including seals, moose, caribou and other animals hunted on the land, and on food brought in by boat, aircraft or trucks using ice roads.
"The winter road season for our communities in northern Ontario grows shorter every year due to climate change," Chief Isadore Day, an indigenous leader, told delegates at a mining conference in Toronto.
"This has already resulted in greater feelings of mass isolation and communal helplessness."
An online image of a fuel tanker plunging through an ice road in Canada's North West Territories went viral earlier this month, prompting discussions about the impacts of global warming on northern residents.
While melting ice has made winter trucking more difficult, the summer shipping season in the far north has gotten longer, making it easier for some mining and other resource firms to move building materials through once frozen Arctic waters.
TMAC Resources, a company developing a coastal gold mine at Hope Bay in Nunavut Territory, now has about 10 weeks each year, starting in August, when they can ship building materials to their concession site.
Nunavut, four times larger than Sweden, holds vast mineral wealth, but challenging weather conditions, high costs, and a lack of transport links have made it hard for resource companies to operate there.
"Sometimes the sea lanes will open earlier, but it's hard to gauge," company spokeswoman Ann Wilkinson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the mining conference, which ends on Wednesday.
Processing facilities for the new gold mine her firm is digging will be shipped to the site in containers during the summer, saving money on expensive airlifts, she said.
Last year, the firm shipped 60 million litres of diesel fuel to its mine site, the "biggest delivery Hope Bay has ever seen", Wilkinson said.
It is unlikely, however, that melting sea ice will lead to a major increase in new resource projects in the region in the near future as commodity prices remain low, industry officials said.
Reporting By Chris Arsenault, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org