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Arctic Businesses Learn to Adapt to Climate Change

Diamond mines such as this one have made Yellowknife a boomtown.
Kevin LaFramboise for NPR /
Diamond mines such as this one have made Yellowknife a boomtown.
/
Workers at the Arslanian Cutting Works in Yellowknife take raw material and craft it into diamonds.
Steve Inskeep, NPR /
Workers at the Arslanian Cutting Works in Yellowknife take raw material and craft it into diamonds.

Gordon Van Tieghem is the mayor of Yellowknife in northern Canada near the Arctic Circle.

He's also a hunter. And as the weather grows warmer, he's noticing more animals drifting up from the south.

"In our area, we've seen cougars, we have crows. It's just in the last 10 years that crows (appeared) — the last 15 years that we've had magpie, white-tailed deer. It's all indicative that something's changing," Van Tieghem says.

Climate change is not only affecting wildlife in the area, it's affecting the economy. Van Tieghem says he has also noticed signs of change in the region's business.

The Arslanian Cutting Works is one small part of a multibillion-dollar Canadian diamond industry. This company at the top of the world has grown from nothing to something in less than two decades.

Its manager, Bob Bees, says some diamonds are imprinted with a microscopic polar bear.

"Our diamonds are special, because not only are they mined in Canada, they're manufactured in Canada," Bees says.

And it's implied that part of the value of these diamonds is that they are not from a war zone.

The diamonds can remind you of little fragments of ice, which is appropriate when you consider how this booming industry has adapted to Canada's harsh climate. The big mines get their supplies trucked in over the ice.

Tom Hoefer, a spokesman for the Diavik mine, says this process makes his industry sensitive to the climate.

Every winter, the mines truck in supplies across a string of frozen lakes. It's the only connection between Yellowknife and mines that may be hundreds of miles away.

During one recent winter, the ice wasn't thick enough. In order to keep running, the owners of Hoefer's mine spent millions of dollars on a kind of Berlin airlift for gemstones.

Yellowknife has turned into a boomtown, where everybody seems to want a piece of the diamond business. Consider the local diner, where half the customers seem to be prospectors.

Even the woman pouring coffee has invested in a project managed by a customer. This customer, John Dalton, hopes he's about to find diamonds.

Consider the local contractors Dalton's company hired to pound holes in the rock outside town. The region's economy revolves around projects like this.

In 2006, a truck on the way to this exploration site broke through the ice on the Great Slave Lake. It sank.

Though this past winter was colder, Van Tieghem says entrepreneurs have been arriving in town, offering solutions to keep business going amid changes in climate.

Some mining companies are proposing a permanent road on land, not ice.

Hoefer says it would reach from the mines to a place even farther north — to the seaways of the Arctic. It could encourage even more yawning mines.

From an airplane, Canadian Glen Warner comments on one large mine.

"You see the open pit down below, down to the lower left there, you can see the great big multi-ton trucks, looking tiny at the bottom of the pit — and the road going around on the inside of the kimberlite pipe getting narrower as it gets to the bottom," Warner says.

Warner owns a tourist lodge at Bathurst Inlet on the northern shore of mainland Canada. This is the spot where some mining companies speak of opening a port.

Warner says he has trouble believing that the world has really changed that much.

Decades ago, he was a Canadian Mountie and his patrols took him across the sea routes that people now speak of using for cargo ships.

Northern Canada's new warmer winter is still pretty cold by American standards. But compared with decades past, one Canadian climatologist describes the region as "on fire."

Multibillion-dollar businesses are seeking solutions to make sure they don't get burned.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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