Arctic Businesses Learn to Adapt to Climate Change Climate change is not only having an impact on wildlife at the top of the world — it's affecting the economy and the region's business.
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Arctic Businesses Learn to Adapt to Climate Change

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Arctic Businesses Learn to Adapt to Climate Change

Arctic Businesses Learn to Adapt to Climate Change

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If you want to know how the climate is changing near the Arctic Circle, take a seat on the buffalo hide that covers Gordon Van Tieghem's couch.

Mayor GORDON VAN TIEGHEM (Yellowknife, Canada): Yeah. There's a difference. We're seeing it with something called invasive species.

MONTAGNE: Gordon Van Tieghem is the mayor of Yellowknife, in Canada. He's also a hunter. He's noticed more animals drifting north as the weather grows warmer.

Mayor VAN TIEGHEM: We've seen cougars. We have crows. It's just in the last 15 years that we've had magpie, white-tailed deer. So it's all indicative that something's changing.

MONTAGNE: It's changing around one of the continent's northernmost cities - a 1,200-mile drive north of the border with Montana. Mayor Van Tieghem knows global warming can also affect his city's business climate.


This week our series, Climate Connections with the National Geographic, is exploring the economy near the top of the world. That includes the industry that sent a glittering stone to Mayor Van Tieghem's city of Yellowknife.

(Soundbite of machinery)

INSKEEP: It's a diamond, and it's spinning on a kind of lathe. A man cuts the stone, producing a tiny stream of diamond dust. The Arslanian Cutting Works is part of the multibillion-dollar Canadian diamond industry. If you've never heard of that industry, it's because it's grown from nothing in less than two decades.

Arslanian's manager, Bob Bees, says some diamonds are imprinted with a microscopic polar bear.

Mr. BOB BEES (Manager, Arslanian Cutting Works): Our diamonds are special, because not only are they mined in Canada, they're also manufactured a hundred percent in Canada.

INSKEEP: Is part of the value of the branding that you can say what the diamond is not, that it's not from a war zone, for example?

Mr. BEES: We don't use that, because it's a negative.

INSKEEP: But that - it's implied, isn't it?

Mr. BEES: It's implied, yeah.

INSKEEP: Canadian diamonds can remind you of little fragments of ice, which is appropriate when you consider how this industry adapted to Canada's weather. The mines get supplies trucked in over the ice.

Tom Hoefer of the giant Diavik mine says that makes his industry sensitive to the climate.

Mr. TOM HOEFER (Manager, Diavik Mine): I grew up here in Yellowknife, and I remember as a child having lots of minus 40 degrees, minus 50 degrees. And, you know, nowadays we're lucky if we get any minus 40 in Yellowknife. I say lucky because, of course, as an ice road builder, I want the cold.

INSKEEP: He said ice roads. Every winter, mines truck in supplies across a string of frozen lakes. That's the only way to get from Yellowknife to mining camps hundreds of miles away. People in Mayor Van Tieghem's isolated city like to say they have no problem with car theft. Where would you drive?

Mayor VAN TIEGHEM: We're at the end of the road.

INSKEEP: Right here in Yellowknife. Or a little beyond it, anyway.

Mayor VAN TIEGHEM: Well, the road actually goes - I think it's 70 kilometers beyond Yellowknife, and then there's a stop sign. And behind that stop sign, there's a lake. That's the end of the road.

(Soundbite of vehicle door closing)

INSKEEP: The mayor's right. There's a hand-painted sign out here that says road closed, for those who missed the open water directly ahead. Of course, in wintertime, there's more than a foot of ice here, more than enough to drive on. But on one recent winter, the ice wasn't thick enough.

Mr. HOEFER: We actually had a very unique winter in 2006.

INSKEEP: That's Tom Hoefer, of the Diavik Mine.

Mr. HOEFER: We had the warmest winter in the 70 years of records that we have up here. And in all of Canada, actually, it was the area that deviated the most from normal, and it sat right over top of our winter road.

INSKEEP: Which opened late and closed early. A mine that might well have put a diamond on your finger was short of supplies for the year. The company had to bring an old Russian military aircraft. It spent millions of dollars on a kind of Berlin airlift for gemstones.

Mr. HOEFER: Flying's a very costly proposition. Flying is anywhere from four to eight times more expensive than using a haul truck to drive up there.

INSKEEP: Did you say four to eight times more expensive?

Mr. HOEFER: Four to eight times, that's right. So we made the commitment to continue as planned, which meant that we had to fly in millions of pounds of freight.

INSKEEP: When people at Diavik or your owners think about your strategy and think about the future, how much does global warming fit into your calculations?

Mr. HOEFER: Well, the winter road is recognized as our biggest business risk, and so it is something that we have to realize is on our doorstep.

INSKEEP: It's also on the doorstep of Yellowknife, a city where it seems that everybody is in the mining business. Consider a local coffee shop, where half the diners seemed to be prospectors.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Consider the woman pouring coffee. She's among the investors in a project managed by one of her customers. Consider that customer, John Dalton, who hopes he's about to find diamonds.

Mr. JOHN DALTON (Diamond Investor): It's an interesting feeling. It sort of tingles up through your toes.

INSKEEP: And consider the local contractors Dalton's company Snowfield hired to pound holes in kimberlite - rock that may contain diamonds. A whole region's economy revolves around projects like this one outside town. So it's worth noting that in 2006, a truck heading for this exploration site broke through thin ice on the Great Slave Lake. It sank.

Though the next winter was colder, Mayor Van Tieghem says entrepreneurs are promoting alternatives to ice roads.

Mayor VAN TIEGHEM: People are already looking at airships. We've had people here from Britain and the United States that have been working to develop airships…

INSKEEP: You mean like the Hindenburg?

Mayor VAN TIEGHEM: They're a little bit beyond that, but yes, same basic concept.

INSKEEP: Some companies favor another plan. They're discussing a permanent road on land, not ice. Tom Hoefer of Diavik says it would connect mines to a place even farther north - an Arctic seaway. The sea route known as the Northwest Passage used to be known for trapping explorers in ice.

Mr. HOEFER: Now the projections are that sea ice are probably become thinner over time with climate change. So is that going to be tougher to ship up there or easier? Most people think it'll be easier.

INSKEEP: Would that take global warming, which is your enemy, and turn it into your friend?

Mr. HOEFER: It could. It could also change northern Canada. Native groups hope the poor creates jobs. It could even encourage more mines, like the diamond pit we flew over with a Canadian named Glen Warner.

Mr. GLEN WARNER (Resident, Canada): Well, you see that open pit down below? Down to the lower left there, you could see the great big multi-ton truck, looking tiny at the bottom of the pit, and the road going around on the inside of the kimberlite pipe getting narrower and narrower as it gets to the bottom.

INSKEEP: Glen Warner owns a tourist lodge on mainland Canada's northern shore. It's at Bathurst Inlet near where that new port would go, though he doubts it's coming anytime soon. He has trouble believing the world has changed that much.

Warner used to be a Canadian mounty. His patrols took him across the sea routes, where people now speak of sending cargo ships.

Mr. WARNER: I was a corporal in-charge of the detachment there in 1963, and I'd go to Bathurst Inlet by dog team in the wintertime and by boats in the summertime.

INSKEEP: Now when you say going by dog team, this is across the water. And in wintertime, the ice was solid enough, obviously.

Mr. WARNER: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. And it's going to be solid for a long time. As you know, I don't buy any shares in the shipping company that's raising money to go through the Arctic without icebreaker support next year. Right.

INSKEEP: Maybe not next year. We should stress that a warm winter in northern Canada is still very cold by American standards. But this is one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth. A Canadian climatologist says the region is, in his words, on fire. Businesses want to make sure they don't get burned.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP:Our series continues tomorrow with the drive for Arctic oil. You can see a slide show of Canadian diamond country at

It's NPR News.

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