Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Airships Offer a Green Alternative to Canada’s Melting Ice Roads

| Mar. 25, 2024

This publication was produced as part of IGA 671M: Policy and Social Innovation for the Changing Arctic. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

 


This year’s record-setting delays in ice road openings in the Northwest Territories and abrupt closures in Manitoba and Ontario that impacted dozens of Indigenous communities offer a preview of the turmoil coming by 2050 when the Canadian Climate Institute predicts half of Canada’s 8,000 km winter ice road network could be out of service.

There is clear evidence that the winter ice road network constructed annually over frozen lakes, rivers, and rough terrain is shortening each year due to rising temperatures and more extreme weather fluctuations despite decades of patchwork solutions to Northern transportation issues by federal, provincial and territorial governments, First Nations, and private companies. Now it’s time for the government of Canada to look to the skies and invest in a new technology – green airships – that can soar over transportation gaps that are widening as the permafrost thaws.

There isn’t a simple fix to this problem. Building one kilometer of gravel road in northern Canada costs an average of $3 million, due to rock outcrops, swamps, discontinuous permafrost, muskeg, and lakes. Replacing the ice road network with permanent roads would cost $24 billion, close to four times the annual budgets of Canada’s territories. Additionally, ice roads operate in ecologically sensitive areas, and the construction of permanent roads may put caribou herds, a critical food source for many communities, at risk. 

The overwhelming obstacles to road construction make it worthwhile to investigate the game-changing potential of the same technology that is used by the Goodyear blimp at sports games to move beyond a novelty marketing vehicle to become a sustainable transportation solution in the North by hauling up to three tractor-trailer loads of freight with electric-powered airships. 

Initial research on the viability of this technology in the Arctic by the Canadian Arctic Innovation Association was supported by a diverse coalition of groups – including De Beers Diamonds, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Yellowknife and Iqaluit municipal governments, multiple northern airlines, and the Inuit Business Council. This research showed that this old-school technology may have potential to revolutionize transport in the North. Airships require minimal landing infrastructure and use less fuel than planes, meaning they cost less per trip and have lower emissions than conventional aviation. A private company is already planning tests of this technology in France’s forest industry. 

However, the potential of this technology for the North is too great for us to simply wait for the private sector to step in to resolve questions about how airships will weather Arctic conditions and how to develop viable business models for operators. If the Federal Government wants to get serious about high costs of living and barriers to economic development in the North, it should be clearing a flight path for companies serious about innovation. 

The Federal Government could start by providing incentives to universities and private companies to offset some of the research and development costs of this technology. They must also fund research to fully understand the opinions of Northern Indigenous communities on the use of airships in their communities. 

Additionally, given the growing interest in this technology, Transport Canada should hire a dedicated liaison to work with industry and begin the development of licensing regulations, safety codes, and pilot certification requirements. If the technology is developed, communities shouldn’t be stuck waiting for government regulations to catch up. 

The idea that airships will one day become the backbone of transportation technology may seem farfetched, but the North has a remarkable history of innovation – from Inuit hunters who devised goggles to prevent blinding snow glare, to geologists who led development of Canada’s first diamond mines, to trucking companies who dreamed up and built Canada’s first winter ice roads. 

Climate change is forcing us to revisit older technologies such as windmills and electric cars that were once abandoned because of cheap fossil fuels. With support from the federal government, the airship could well be the next invention that is poised to take off and help us navigate a future clouded by climate change concerns.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cashman, Helen.“Airships Offer a Green Alternative to Canada’s Melting Ice Roads.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 25, 2024.

The Author