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Missed Connections

Missed Connections

The North’s connections aren’t fail-safe. What happens when those links are lost?
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Jun 10
2019
From the JUNE 2019 Issue

We’re more connected than ever, and Northerners have embraced the good life of internet connections, Amazon deliveries, and easier and faster travel.

But what happens when those connections break? It isn’t as uncommon as you’d think: power outages, internet failures and travel delays are rites of Northern passage. The weather, the terrain, and the remoteness of the North all fight fragile connections for supremacy—do we have a backup for when we break down? Behold, three apocalyptic case studies that ask the question: can Northern ingenuity make sure the North isn’t sunk by the same efficiencies that shrunk us?

We’re melting… melting…
It’s a beautiful spring day. People shuck their parkas, and bask in the soft breeze and bright sunlight.

Only they shouldn’t. It’s only March, and in Yellowknife, the castle has fallen. For the first time in over 20 years, the Snow King’s castle closes weeks early, as it literally melts into the depths of Great Slave Lake. It’s a harbinger of things to come. With temperatures far above average up and down the NWT, hockey rinks melt, lakes soften, and somewhere, a car is stuck, an ice road slowly melting beneath it.

By March 20th—nearly two weeks earlier than the average—the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road closed to all traffic, stranding people who now wondered if they would be able to drive home. The NWT’s winter road system spans nearly 2,000 kilometers, crossing terrain that’s impassible in the warmer months. This year, dozens of vehicles were stuck in mud on steep hills, and tow trucks were dispatched in the dark of night to help vehicles up Blackwater, Saline, and Pipeline hills. Other winter roads were closed to everything except nighttime traffic to try to save the ice from the sun.

The winter roads are generally open from late-December until the end of March, with some segments even making it into April before closing. For mines and businesses using the winter months to transport a year’s worth of goods and for people able to drive out of their communities instead of hopping on a plane, the winter roads are a life line. And they’re melting.

“It did happen very dramatically,” says Jayleen Robertson, assistant deputy minister of regional operations with the government of the Northwest Territories’ department of infrastructure.

Around March 16, temperatures started to climb and the pending closure notices started to appear. “The road degraded extremely quickly,” she says. Within 48 hours of the notice, roads were closing. “There were a lot of people that hadn’t gotten to their final destination, so we did help people get home to their community safely.”

In some cases that meant winching vehicles up hills, or helping people stuck in the mud. In other cases, it meant forming convoys like a slushy Mad Max, hitting the road as a group after the sun went down. Northerners don’t stay stuck for long. “Everyone that’s usually driving that road, they’re very familiar with the road. They’re very prepared, they’re carrying chains and extra tires and all of that stuff. Generally, people who are travelling the Mackenzie Valley winter road for sure are prepared.”

Robertson says her department is learning to adapt to changing weather patterns—from using lighter equipment to clear the snow off the lakes earlier, which helps the layers of ice build-up more quickly, to closing roads to daytime traffic to protect the surfaces from damage when the sun is at full strength. But long-term she says the solution is moving away from winter roads and towards all-weather. “Especially with more variable and warmer winters.”

The winter roads may be on thin ice, but they’re not the only fragile connection Northerners rely on daily. And all it takes is one cowboy with a backhoe to plunge entire Yukon communities into the Middle Ages. Or at least take away Facebook.

The day the internet died
In 2016, a construction crew working in northern B.C. snipped Northwestel’s only fibre cable running into the Yukon, switching the internet off for almost a full day across the territory, as well as disrupting connections for phone and TV service in the NWT and Nunavut. It’s not the first time it happened. A year before, the fibre line was cut near Watson Lake, and the Yukon found itself with no cat memes, no Instagram, and disrupted modern life.

“I heard anecdotally Dawson City lost its connectivity at one point and they literally were on a barter economy,” says Peter Turner, president of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce. “People were going to the grocery store and writing an IOU. You kind of knew whose door to bang on in order to get your money back at some point, so they could do it. It’s a little bit less practical in Yellowknife or Whitehorse.”

Turner worked for Northwestel a decade ago, in consumer internet operations. “We’ve become a data-dependent society. In most cases you can’t even go to the bank and pull out cash because their whole backbone, their ATMs and even their computers inside the bank, are all geared to run across the internet.”

And when it’s down, it has big consequences. Businesses can’t function and public communications can’t happen. (For example when the ice roads melt, the GNWT first communicates that via social media.)

So why does the cable keep getting cut? The fibre line is the diameter of your finger, explains Turner. And it’s not buried deep underground. Sometimes it’s trenched a few feet into the ground, in deference to the North’s vast distances and bedrock. Sometimes it’s strung on telephone poles, making it vulnerable to being ripped down. “But that’s far less likely than what I think has been a more common experience which is basically some idiot with a backhoe has dug it up and cut it.”

Those cables are built to industry standard. The trouble is, what works in the south might be a trifle delicate for the North. But because of the small customer base, it’s unlikely a made-in-the-North, armour-plated fibre cable is on the horizon. What might be, however, is data redundancy.

“Here’s the difference,” explains Turner. “In virtually all of the south they have what they call fibre redundancy. And what that means is that in a blink of an eye if a cable is cut the technology that sends the transmissions over the fibre optics cable recognizes that the signal is not going through and it basically reroutes all those packets of data through an alternate route. In fact, you and I could be on a telephone conversation and it could happen and we wouldn’t even know that a cable has been cut.”

Right now, for a portion of northern Yukon, there’s still only one line. But that’s about to change. The Dempster Fibre Project will follow the Dempster Highway, connecting Dawson City and Inuvik and covering 777 kilometres. The cost of the $79 million project is split between the federal government, the Yukon government, and Northwestel. It’s due to be completed in 2021, creating the continuous 4,000-kilometre long Canada North Fibre Loop once it connects to the existing Mackenzie Valley fibre line. The government of Yukon will own the new line, and Northwestel will operate it.

What happens when there’s no redundant backup? You might find yourself in the dark. In the middle of February.

When the lights go out
Last year, the Northwest Territories government cancelled barge service to several communities citing poor ice conditions. Shipments were stranded in Inuvik and communities in NWT and Nunavut waited for everything from groceries and building supplies to chlorine needed to purify water in Cambridge Bay. Nunavut communities are remote: items from apples to Fords have to be brought in by planes or by boats as there are no roads connecting communities. Although all communities have airstrips, many are limited in the number and size of aircraft they can accommodate thanks to short runways and other infrastructure deficits, and that’s without even mentioning the high cost. Plus, flying in Nunavut is a magical mystery tour of will-we-actually-take-off: even large communities like Rankin Inlet are known to watch planes soar overhead and keep right on going, not landing lest they be grounded by weather.

It’s easy to ignore that isolation, until it isn’t—like in 2008, when the generators failed in Rankin Inlet. For nearly a week, the hamlet froze after three of the hamlet’s four diesel electricity generators suffered mechanical failure. This left Rankin residents with frozen pipes, cars running all night with owners afraid that, without block heaters, they’d never start again, and rolling blackouts. Eventually, a new generator was flown in from Yellowknife and another located at a quarry outside the hamlet. In their 2009 annual report, Quilliq Energy Corporation planned to deliver an emergency generator to Rankin Inlet, in case it ever happened again.

But what about when a replacement can’t be airlifted in by a Herc? That’s why Peter Laube, vice president of construction company Kalvik Enterprises, decided to burn several pallets of flooring this past winter in Cambridge Bay.

After the barges were cancelled, the GNWT vowed to fly supplies in, but only a fraction of the promised airlifts took off. Laube says what has been flown in isn’t usable, after being uncrated and improperly stored in Inuvik. “Our flooring is destroyed, it was all full of mold and damaged. We couldn’t install it in anybody’s place. We had to take it to the dump and burn it.”

In the meantime, his business has to swallow the cost of not just new materials, but flying them into the community, as he can’t retroactively raise prices on jobs almost completed.

Redundant infrastructure is in the works. Both the federal and territorial governments have committed funding for air travel infrastructure such as new terminal buildings in the Kivalliq and Iqaluit.

The challenges of the North—the distance, the weather, the isolation—aren’t going away anytime soon. And we wouldn’t want them to; they’re the eye of newt and toe of frog that make our Northern magic possible. But by backing up these systems, we can make it slightly less end-of-the-world when things do go wrong.