Constructing Canada’s First Highway to the Arctic Ocean

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cassidy Menard, Department of Infrastructure, Government of the Northwest Territories, discusses projects that seek to measure the performance of the new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.

The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) has become the gathering place for innovative research in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT).

“We hope that the scientific opportunities provided by the road will be a catalyst to building strong research partnerships between territorial and federal governments, universities and the Inuvialuit,” says permafrost scientist Steve Kokelj.

Projects range from deep fill test sections, to ecological recovery in northern borrow pits, to the establishment of sentinel permafrost monitoring sites. All of these endeavours seek to measure the performance of the highway and to develop new strategies to manage risks unique to the region. Climate change makes it increasingly critical to develop informed management and mitigation techniques.

Photo: An alternative drainage test site along the ITH, Government of the NWT

The study of permafrost is of particular interest to researchers in the North. The sentinel permafrost monitoring network, which consists of over 70 ground temperature monitoring locations, has been put in place to collect data along the ITH.

“This project seeks to evaluate and monitor ground temperature conditions, and to map the distribution of ground ice and other indicators of thaw-sensitive terrain,” says Kokelj.

The purpose of the deep fill project, in partnership with the University of Manitoba and funded by Transport Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), is to monitor the structural stability of deep fill highway embankments and evaluate the use of geosynthetic reinforcements in Arctic conditions.

This technology will hopefully reduce deformation of embankments as the ground thaws and ensure greater structural integrity of the highway. Monitoring of these test sections will continue through April 2019.

Similar innovation can be found in the project evaluating alternative drainage structures in collaboration with Terratech Consulting Ltd. 

“We hope to determine whether drainage structures that utilize high density polyethylene and geosynthetic reinforced soil can reduce excessive settlements and the migration of heat into permafrost soils,” says Ann Kulmatycki, Head of Transportation Structures with the GNWT. 

Many of these projects are part of the NWT Transportation Monitoring Program, which is funded by the GNWT and Transport Canada.

The territorial and federal governments have contributed a combined $1,636,200 to climate change research to date as part of the Northern Transportation Adaptation Initiative.

Construction of a highway of this scope and under these conditions is certainly not without its challenges however.

According to Kevin McLeod, Assistant Deputy Minister of Asset Management with the Department of Infrastructure, “a major difficulty was finding, training and retaining skilled workers.”

As a solution, the GNWT employed local workers and provided access to many training opportunities to over 180 people throughout construction.

“The project has also required careful coordination with suppliers, a good preventative maintenance program and contingency planning three years ahead of construction,” says McLeod.

Once complete, the 137-kilometre highway will link the Town of Inuvik with the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, connecting visitors by road to the Arctic’s breathtaking Beaufort Sea.

In addition to research and development, the ITH is expected to improve the cost-of-living for residents, particularly in Tuktoyaktuk.

The highway will eliminate the need for a seasonal ice-road and therefore allow for year-round delivery of goods. This also improves the community’s access to healthcare and further education, and opens up recreational and social opportunities in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

Celebrations are currently being planned for the highway’s scheduled opening on November 15, 2017. The events in both Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk will be a joint effort between the GNWT, the federal government, Aboriginal governments and local municipalities.

After its official opening, the highway will continue to host researchers from across Canada for many years to come.

For more information on the status of the ITH, please visit the official website