A massive outflow of heavy sea ice from the High Arctic has cut three communities off from their annual resupply barge shipment leaving household groceries, construction materials and municipal equipment stranded on the docks in Tuktoyaktuk.
The ice is so impassable that Marine Transportation Services Ltd., owned by the Northwest Territories, will have to airlift more than 700,000 litres of diesel and gas to the community of Paulatuk to run the community's generator.
"This is heavy ice," said John Vandenberg of the N.W.T.'s department of infrastructure. "It's unprecedented and it's come down vigorously and early."
Although they got their diesel shipments earlier this season, further shipments to the central Arctic communities of Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay were also cancelled. More than 3,000 people live in the three communities.
"All our total next year's worth of supplies are on that barge — lifts and lifts of cabinet materials, rolls and rolls of Arborite and flooring," said Peter Laube of Kalvik Enterprises in Cambridge Bay.
"We've got these huge jobs all over."
The sea lift resupply is an annual rite all over the Arctic. Communities without land links order a year's worth of everything — from diapers to canned pop to office supplies to dog food — from one of several barge companies that operate in the North.
John Holland, senior administrative officer for the hamlet of Paulatuk, said the company didn't even send official notice that the sea lift had been cancelled.
"We've heard nothing directly. I had $2,000 worth of groceries on that barge."
Laube said he was counting on those supplies — for which he's already paid — to build new staff housing. He's since had to rent accommodation for his workers at $3,200 a month.
As well, his company won't be able to finish homes it's already sold and will have to rent something for those people at $5,000 a month.
If he also has to fly in supplies to meet commitments, he figures the cancelled barge will cost his company up to $400,000.
Holland said his community has badly needed heavy equipment on the barge. Hunters are waiting for ATVs they need to get on the land. Hotels have supplies they need for visitors. People are making loan payments on vehicles they can't drive.
Vandenberg said the company will do what it can to get the supplies to communities. The barges are being moved to Inuvik, where a better runway will make it easier to conduct airlifts and the goods can be more safely stored.
"We're going to be dealing with these on a priority basis. Some things are more important than others and we're going to have to have those discussions. We're looking at all options."
The coast guard's icebreaker Louis St. Laurent is in the area, but the ice is so heavy that it wouldn't be safe to move a barge even with its escort.
"It's kicking up pieces of ice bigger than Volkswagens," Vandenberg said. "These things float around and they can cut a non-ice class vessel open."
Vandenberg said an airlift will begin over the next few days. The fuel alone is likely to take 50 or 60 loads, he said.
"It's going to take a while. We do understand the frustrations of the communities."
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press