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Yukonomist: Beavers versus Just-in-Time Logistics

Beaver hats would be the perfect thank-you gift for the hard-working crews who so quickly restored our recent rash of highway and fibre-optic cable washouts.

Beaver hats would be the perfect thank-you gift for the hard-working crews who so quickly restored our recent rash of highway and fibre-optic cable washouts.

But last week went beyond the heavy rains and bad beaver engineering that washed out Kilometre 897 of the Alaska Highway.

The Yukon was like the setting of one of the trendy new Climate Fiction, or CliFi, novels. Yukon News reporters typed frantically all week to keep up with the bad news.

In addition to the Alaska Highway washout, erosion also cut the fibre-optic cable connecting us to the internet.

At the same time, Environment Canada posted a rare Heat Warning for the Yukon. Hot, dry weather soon had 144 active wildfires raging across the territory. Smoke hung post-apocalyptically in the hot summer air. The government fire map of the Yukon looked like a tourist with 144 mosquito bites. Fires burned in almost all Yukon regions and multiple communities were under evacuation alert.

The fires also closed the Klondike Highway north of Pelly Crossing. Then there was another partial washout at Horse Creek near Lake Laberge. A berm was deployed against flooding in Carmacks.

Meanwhile, IT gremlins in Southern Canada struck in solidarity with Yukon beavers: cellphone and Interac payment services went down nationally.

Milk disappeared from the shelves. Panic buying broke out at grocery stores. Travelers stood on highway shoulders wondering how much food was in the truck. Internet workers downed tools for the day. People scrambled to find cash for basic purchases. The economy downshifted two gears.

There’s an old saying about plumbing: you only pay attention to it once it stops working.

The same applies to the internet and the finely tuned, just-in-time delivery systems that bring the necessities of life to our local grocery store.

In 1898, the North West Mounted Police required people entering the Yukon to have a year’s worth of food and clothing. Today, many people only have a week of food at home. The grocery stores only have a week more. Yukoners travel from Whitehorse to Dawson with just flip flops and a debit card. We grumble if the gas bar in Carmacks is out of our favourite kind of chips.

Climate change models suggest extreme events will happen more regularly.

For example, the Canadian Climate Institute, a government-funded think tank in Southern Canada, thinks that in a high-global-emissions scenario the average temperature increase for Whitehorse could be around three degrees by the middle of this century. That’s more than enough to cause major disruption.

Last week’s events are a reminder to Yukoners to get prepared.

Businesses need to update their business continuity plans for inventory, power and internet. For example, while most knowledge workers were knocked offline, one Whitehorse tech firm had back up satellite links already in place. Coding continued. Elon Musk’s Starlink system of ubiquitous satellite internet is already operational for users south of 53 degrees, and will be very helpful when it gets to the Yukon early next year. The government’s much delayed Dempster Highway backup route will be completed in 2024.

Yukon families should also prepare. And not just for beavers causing a two-day milk shortage. There is a risk of longer, more severe disruptions. Think of an ice storm putting out the power to your furnace for a week, or a Fort McMurray-style wildfire sweeping through Whitehorse. The report prepared by Dave Loeks and colleagues for the City of Whitehorse in 2019 described the fire risk like this: “Whitehorse’s exposure is magnified by its topography and location at the junction of four valleys, its summer temperatures, and its wind regimes during the summer. The length and severity of the fire season is expected to increase with the progression of climate change.”

The report says that Whitehorse averages eight days per summer where the Fire Weather Index exceeds 35, the level at which firefighting effectiveness becomes “increasingly negligible.” In 2015, we had 17 days like that.

If your family is skeptical, go on Youtube and show them videos of the chaotic Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation in 2016. The fire burned over 2,000 homes and structures, countless vehicles and caused around $10 billion in damage.

The Yukon government will also have to set aside a growing percentage of the capital budget for climate repairs, wildfire protection and emergency response. That tank report estimates that permafrost damage to roads in the Yukon could average $73-85 million a year over the next 20 years. Future infrastructure projects will be more expensive if it has to be engineered to cope with higher water and more fires.

Finance officials will be modeling how much money will be left for other departments after climate spending and other megatrends like rising health care costs eat ever more of the budget.

So refresh your emergency plan, have cash available and keep your vehicles full of gas. Don’t end up like a hapless character in a CliFi novel next time the beavers — or worse — strike.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.