Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Immediate Climate Vulnerabilities: Climate Change and Planning Policy in Northern Communities

  • Derek MacdonaldEmail author
  • S. Jeff BirchallEmail author
Living reference work entry



Abrupt or Rapid Climate Change

Abrupt, also referred to as rapid, climate change is the nonlinear application of expected climate forces that occur faster than anticipated, or the sudden occurrence of unexpected climate forces (Baede et al. 2014). These unexpected climate forces can have devastating effects for local communities, especially those on the coast (Birchall and Bonnett 2019, in review; Birchall 2019; Wallace 2017). While common coastal community climate change impacts such as sea level rise are more predictable in nature and can be monitored and prepared for over the long term, abrupt climate change impacts can be much more complex to predict, are highly localized (Sorensen et al. 2018), and often result in coastal communities resorting to reactionary measures in order to adapt.

Smaller communities are particularly vulnerable, as the majority of available resources for combatting abrupt climate change effects are often located in larger metropolitan centers, owing to their larger financial, professional, and academic capacity (Sorensen et al. 2018). Moreover, remote northern coastal communities, due to sparse populations and sensitive environmental locations, often lack adequate local resources to either proactively or reactively combat abrupt climate change, without significant external stakeholder collaboration (Sorensen et al. 2018).

Abrupt climate change impacts can manifest in a variety of different ways. In Homer, Alaska, for instance, storm surges and bluff erosion are the primary stressors. While environmental impacts are not new to the remote community, climate change is exacerbating their occurrence and magnitude.

A multidegree increase in seasonal temperatures has led to more severe storms coming off of the Pacific Ocean into Kachemak Bay. The larger wave action associated with these storms has wreaked havoc on Homer’s fragile coastal infrastructure, with waves overtopping seawalls and undermining buildings, and debris blocking highways (Birchall and Bonnett in review).

A rise in intense precipitation, including winter rain (instead of snow) has also increased erosion and instability on the community’s surrounding bluffs, where development is prominent; road collapse and property slumping have all become more common (Birchall 2019).

In Nome, Alaska, elevated temperatures present two key stressors: thawing permafrost and thinning sea ice. Like Homer, environmental change is not new to the community; however, with Arctic temperatures increasing faster than global mean (IPCC 2013), it is the rate of change that challenges community decision-makers in Nome.

Increased rates of permafrost thaw impact Nome in three main ways: building subsidence, utilities failure, and road undulation. While warming permafrost is a challenge during the summer months, thinning sea ice opens the community to greater risk during the cooler months (Birchall and Bonnett in review). Thinning sea ice affects the community primarily in two ways: a longer ice-free season and weaker sea ice, both resulting in increased exposure to storms and flooding (Birchall and Bonnett in review).

Like Homer and Nome, Alaska, Churchill, Manitoba, is experiencing abrupt climate change and as a result has become susceptible to immediate climate change-related vulnerabilities. The case of Churchill is expanded on throughout this entry.


Vulnerability is the potential to be negatively impacted. A community’s vulnerability can be a symptom of being sensitive or susceptible to endangerment and their lack of resources to respond or adapt to climate change impacts (Field 2014).

Immediate Climate Vulnerabilities in Relation to Communities

Communities’ typically begin tackling risks to climate change by assessing and verifying their vulnerabilities through a vulnerability assessment or inventory approach. Assessing vulnerability through a climate change lens is not generally done through a city’s existing disaster risk reduction (DRR) mechanisms but through separate channels from their own environmental departments, the mayor’s office, or other institutions. Simply adding urban climate change adaptation on to existing DRR strategies may prove ineffective as DRR does not provide adequately long-term scope nor does it excel in taking change into account (Bulkeley and Tuts 2013).


Coastal communities are becoming increasingly susceptible to immediate climate change-related vulnerabilities (Birchall and Bonnett in review). Decision-makers are left with the daunting challenge of developing appropriate policies and plans to bolster community resilience and adaptation. Northern coastal communities are especially vulnerable, and as temperatures rise, permafrost thaws and sea ice increases in variability, the natural and built environments become more susceptible to stress. The case of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, is especially intriguing as the town is facing particularly rapid and acute climate vulnerabilities, including permafrost melt, unseasonal heavy precipitation and subsequent flooding, resulting in massive impacts on the town’s local economy and environment.

Immediate Climate Vulnerabilities in Northern Coastal Communities

Northern coastal communities are situated in fragile ecosystems and are thus particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The tundra is a harsh environment that requires unique local adaptations, but rising temperatures are now adding another level of variability. Infrastructure designed to function on permafrost and on seasonal frozen ground conditions is now increasingly jeopardized by rising temperatures (Nunavut Climate Change Centre n.d.). Communities fortunate enough to have winter road access are facing shorter shipping seasons due to longer, less reliable shoulder seasons while those with air access are frequently having to perform costly repairs on heaving runways (Sustainable Development Province of Manitoba n.d.-b). Pipelines and facilities for water, energy, and waste systems are becoming increasingly susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles which push infrastructure beyond design limitations (Nunavut Climate Change Centre n.d.).

Traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering methods used by northern coastal communities are also being threatened by climate change. Longer shoulder seasons, unreliable winter sea-ice thickness, and increasingly difficult overland travel during the summer are all contributing to food insecurity and dependency on nonlocal resources (Nunavut Climate Change Centre n.d.).

The volatile nature of these climate vulnerabilities poses a unique challenge to regional and community planners. Creating land use policies and forecasting long-term infrastructure requirements that are sufficiently adaptable to withstand the myriad of issues that climate change poses is a daunting task. Though climate change adaptation is increasingly prevalent in Arctic governmental and institutional policy, planners still face barriers in implementing those policies on the ground (Ford et al. 2017). Those barriers can be attributed to a community’s level of adaptation readiness or their ability to actually prepare for, create, execute, and reflect upon an adaptation (Ford et al. 2017; Ford and King 2015).

Adaptation readiness heavily relies on political champions, low rates of governmental and institutional turnover, interdepartmental coordination, and sufficient resources (Ford et al. 2017). Many northern coastal communities lack many or all of these attributes, struggling with political and administrative retention, disseminating information among various levels of government, and a lack of capacity to deal with climate change adaptation when they are already overburdened by urgent healthcare, unemployment, and poverty crises (Ford et al. 2017).

In Canada’s case, the federal government and the territorial governments of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut have committed to improving Arctic resiliency initiatives and adaptation readiness through the creation of a Northern Adaptation Strategy (Ford et al. 2017). This strategy should make significant gains in improving adaptation readiness for Arctic coastal communities, but it does not encompass all northern coastal communities. The initiative is exclusive, to a certain extent, as it does not address sub-Arctic coastal communities outside of the territories that are also facing similar, if not more pressing, immediate climate change vulnerabilities.

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada: A Case Study

Importance and Key Issues

The town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, has experienced the effects of climate change more harshly than many communities in recent years. Located along a narrow peninsula between the barren tundra shoreline of Hudson Bay and the mouth of the Churchill River, changes in the town’s ecological surroundings have jeopardized its physical/environmental and economic future, and present a challenge to land use and infrastructure planning in the region.

Churchill’s economy depends on three pillars: tourism, transportation, and health care services (Montsion 2015). With a population of 899 (Statistics Canada 2016), eco-tourism is the town’s main economic driver, but immediate climate vulnerabilities present a major cause for concern. Churchill is internationally recognized as the polar bear capital of the world, and the region has played a catalyzing role in climate change literature and discussion as a result. Sea ice variability caused by rising temperatures is endangering the local bear populations. Polar bears must wait longer for ice to freeze on Hudson Bay, and as a result, hunting for seals is made more difficult. Polar bears are thus becoming increasingly reliant on scavenging land-based food, which has increased the number of dangerous bear encounters in town (Wilder 2017). Further, the lack of a reliable food source is causing a rise in the mortality of cubs, threatening the species long-term viability in the region (Stirling and Derocher 2012; Derocher 1993).

The longer ice-free period is also affecting the local beluga whale population, another key player in Churchill’s eco-tourism economy. Rising water levels and changing weather patterns are affecting the behavior of the Western Hudson Bay beluga population, and a longer ice-free period has meant that killer whales are becoming established in Hudson Bay, endangering belugas that breed in the Seal, Churchill, and Nelson River estuaries (Smith et al. 2017).

The potential increase in activity from the Port of Churchill, due to an extended ice-free shipping season, has been identified as an additional climate change induced threat to the belugas (Government of Manitoba 2016). The Port of Churchill has long been dreamed of as an economic bastion for the town. Canada’s only Arctic deep water port was built based on federal and provincial interest in creating a central continental north-south international trade route to Europe and Northern Asia, but despite repeated top-down attempts over the last century, the port and the associated Hudson Bay Railway have failed to live up to their potential. Federal interest in maintaining the port and railway waned, resulting in their sale to the privately owned OmniTRAX in 1997 (Montsion 2015). The dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk model in 2012 further damaged the port’s significance (Veeman and Veeman 2006).

Though the increased shipping season may benefit a repurposed Port of Churchill in the long-term, more immediate climate change effects have further stressed the port’s economic viability. Overland flooding in the spring of 2017, a result of two unseasonably late winter storms with high snowfall and subsequent rapid snowmelt, washed out portions of the railway, the town’s only permanent land link. Passenger rail services during peak beluga and polar bear season were cancelled and all supplies had to be flown in until a temporary winter road could be built, causing a steep rise in the cost of living (Hoye 2017). Thawing permafrost and the threat of future flooding make repairing and maintaining the rail line difficult, which has left little public or private sector will to restore the line to service. Further complicating the matter, the federal government and OmniTRAX have denied responsibility for the repairs and have filed lawsuits against one another to resolve the dispute, causing uncertainty surrounding any pending sales (CBC News 2018).

Local citizen transportation methods are also doing little to mitigate the effects of climate change on Churchill’s infrastructure. Transportation options within Churchill are reflective of many northern Canadian communities in that Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV’s) are primary modes of transport (Distasio 2011). These transportation methods contribute a disproportionately high amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada (Government of Canada 2013) and are known to degrade ecologically sensitive ecosystems (Ouren et al. 2007).

Struggles in accessing traditional food sources in and around Churchill by OHV’s could have long-term health impacts for the region. Restricted OHV travel caused by thawing permafrost and intensified spring runoff could result in food insecurity and increased dependence on less nutritious southern food shipments. This detachment from the land, paired with more frequent overland flooding events and subsequent railway wash outs, could contribute to mental health deteriorations associated with increased isolation and stress (Groulx et al. 2014; Cunsolo-Willox et al. 2012). These health impacts could affect the social well-being of the community and overburden the Churchill Health Centre (Nunavut Climate Change Centre n.d.).

Climate change could potentially impact property associated with the Churchill Health Centre and other major town institutions. Though sea level rise is expected to have minimal short-term impact on Churchill given that glacial-isostatic adjustment, or the movement of land caused by the retreat of glaciers (National Ocean Service 2017), is resulting in a prolonged topographic rise for the Churchill region (Wolf 2004), continued flood events similar to the one that devastated the rail line could directly impact town infrastructure in the near future. Rising temperatures are projected to increase the veracity of storms across Canada’s north, causing coastal erosion that could require expensive adaptation measures in order to protect key buildings such as the health center (A Northern Vision n.d.). Thawing permafrost is also predicted to endanger underground infrastructure, limit where buildings can be located and dictate how community expansion can take place (Nunavut Climate Change Centre n.d.).

All of the above climate change impacts represent significant challenges to land use and infrastructure planning in Churchill. Despite being aware of these challenges, and recognizing that climate change is directly impacting the well-being of the species that dominates their economy and way of life, residents are still relatively disengaged and inactive in municipal climate change discourse (Groulx et al. 2014). This lack of engagement has been attributed to a failure to create a socially salient message. The approach to climate change education has been primarily academic and therefore often misses the opportunity to garner community buy-in by integrating social interactions with the effects of climate change (Groulx et al. 2014).

Incorporating climate change into land use and infrastructure planning in Churchill is complicated by the number of stakeholders and differing jurisdictional structures involved. Historically, the divide between federal, provincial, and private land interests surrounding the town site has been vague (Sustainable Development Province of Manitoba n.d.-a). The town site itself also has a disproportionate number of provincially owned housing, recreation and health services buildings in comparison to private and municipal structures (Distasio 2011). This muddling of jurisdictional authority weakens Churchill’s adaptive readiness since many adaptations to immediate climate change vulnerabilities rely on cooperation from multiple levels of government and private interests. Unsuccessful collaboration results in a failure to keep climate change adaptation at the forefront of land use and planning discussions, as evidenced by the current port and railway dispute.

Future Directions

At the municipal level, Churchill has taken steps to combat the immediate effects of climate change, including the creation of Churchill’s Sustainability Planning Framework (CSPF). Conducted in 2011 by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies, the CSPF creates a long-term vision for Churchill’s future based around six key integrated priority areas: food security, economic development, youth education, training, and recreation, waste management, housing, and built environment. The CSPF directly recognizes Churchill’s climate change vulnerabilities in terms of economic development, waste management, and built environment priorities and recommends that Churchill create a long-term climate change and adaptation and mitigation approach that is synchronized with every aspect of future planning (Distasio 2011).

The creation of the CSPF follows a common trend noted by climate change adaptation literature: that the creation of a vulnerability and hazards assessment is only the first material step a municipality can take towards meaningful climate change adaptation action (Stults and Woodruff 2017; Berrang-Ford et al. 2011; Eakin and Luers 2006; Maru et al. 2011; Smit and Wandel 2006). The CSPF is typical of other localized climate change assessment documents in that it reads more as a symbolic intention to act rather than a detailed outline of planned actions and how to successfully implement and measure them (Stults and Woodruff 2017; Berrang-Ford et al. 2011; Birchall and Bonnett in review). Focusing on the assessment aspect of climate change adaptation is understandable, especially considering the significantly larger emphasis that academic and gray literature have placed on the topic, judged by the drastically greater number of publications, compared to literature on climate change implementation and actions (Stults and Woodruff 2017; Stults et al. 2015). This tendency is reflected in the scholarly climate change research at Churchill’s Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). The CNSC directs the vast majority of its attention on Churchill’s vulnerable and unique ecological environment (Churchill Northern Studies Centre n.d.) rather than on the effects of climate change on the town’s residents and infrastructure. The bias in local research provides insight as to why a place so commonly associated with sustainability and environmentalism is only at the preliminary stages of its own climate change planning policies.

The lack of integration between climate change adaptation literature’s language and structure and a community’s existing land use and infrastructure risk management mechanisms (Gibbs 2015) may be contributing to climate change adaptation actions not being explicitly mentioned in the Town of Churchill’s existing documentation. Gibbs (2015) suggests that instead of creating brand new, climate change specific actions, municipalities should build climate change actions into their established infrastructure and maintenance practices. For instance, the Town of Churchill and OmniTRAX may already be utilizing infrastructure building and maintenance practices in their day-to-day operations that successfully address certain immediate climate change vulnerability challenges such as permafrost thaw to some extent. If so, future climate change adaptation actions regarding permafrost thaw could use those existing practices as building blocks, increasing the likelihood of those future actions being implemented since they were born from policy that is already being acted upon.

The actual creation and implementation of any adaptations or strategies stemming from the CSPF may also be hindered by a lack of political will. Though the CSPF was created through community consultation and had significant local public support (Distasio 2011), the future of the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill is partially out of the community’s hands. As Montsion (2015) states, if Churchill is to be thought of as a port community first and foremost, then the continuous decrease in the town’s population and economic prospects can be attributed to the port’s underutilization and the absence of a coordinated local economic development effort among the key government, private sector, and community stakeholders.

Assuming the railway and port are sold and repaired, significant future investment will still be required to retrofit the port to handle goods other than grain. Municipal and provincial stakeholders have lobbied the federal government to support the Arctic Gateway corridor, a proposed economic gateway connecting the Foreign Trade Zone and multimodal cargo transportation hub of CentrePort in Winnipeg (CentrePort Canada 2018), and the Ports of Churchill and Iqaluit, to European and Russian ports across the Arctic Circle (Montsion 2015). A federal commitment to promote Arctic Gateway under their National Policy Framework for Strategic Gateways and Trade Corridors would catalyze public and private infrastructure investment in Churchill and the surrounding region, allowing the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay Railway to diversify.

Unfortunately, lobbying efforts to date have failed to achieve federal backing due to the federal government’s assertion that funding is lacking, and their expectation that the current National Policy Framework would have to be significantly modified in order to include indigenous key actors and policy frameworks that are unique to the Arctic (Parliamentary Information and Research Service 2011). This lack of funding commitment may also be due to the federal government no longer seeing Churchill as “northern” enough, instead focusing on communities above the 60th parallel (Montsion 2015).

The erosion of the Churchill Health Centre’s status as the main health hub for the region is a prominent example of the town’s declining influence among its Arctic counterparts. The upgrading of healthcare services in Rankin Inlet, the administrative center of Nunavut’s neighboring Kivalliq Region, has created a significant reduction in the number of patients needing to be flown to Churchill for care (Robertson 2017). Though more localized delivery of health care services in Nunavut is a positive development for Kivalliq residents (Montsion 2015), it has caused the short term underutilization of the Churchill Health Centre in some health disciplines and is resulting in residents needing to flown to the other healthcare hubs in Manitoba for services such as childbirth (Robertson 2017).

Adaptation to Churchill’s climate change challenges will require a transformative shift in how current planning policy is funded and adopted. Opening up different channels for discussion and bringing in new institutions to create a more sustainable funding model (Bulkeley and Tuts 2013) could be a key to effectively implementing existing policies such as the CSPF and achieving federal recognition the Arctic Gateway corridor.

The environmental, economic, and physical effects of immediate climate change need to be addressed and acted upon to ensure the long-term viability of Churchill, and its surrounding ecosystem. Churchill’s experience is becoming increasingly common throughout northern coastal communities around the world, and planners can assist these communities by ensuring that these vulnerabilities are measured and accounted for in land use policies and infrastructure assessments.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Urban and Regional Planning, Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anabela Marisa Azul
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Neuroscience and Cell BiologyUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal