Fix for low-water shipping woes could be ‘lighter than air,’ committee hears

But until Ottawa approves airships for arctic use, the push to finish Mackenzie Valley highway shifts gears

The cover of Cam Kovarek's study on airships in the North. The piece was published last fall by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

With barges stranded and deliveries disrupted up and down the Mackenzie River, alternatives to shipping are lacking at present, says Minister of Finance and Infrastructure Caroline Wawzonek.

The senior minister told a committee hearing on Wednesday how she has been pitched alternative cargo transportation concepts, everything from finally securing funding for the Mackenzie Valley Highway, to contracting regional airlines’ larger planes for an ‘air barge’ system, to dirigibles.

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan asks about using airships to transport cargo in the NWT. (Image courtesy of Assembly livestream)

The latter use of airships is an idea championed in recent years by academics and think-tanks, but never actually put to commercial use in the arctic.

Shauna Morgan is the MLA for Yellowknife Centre.

She asked Minister Wawzonek if airships were still on the GNWT’s radar?

“I feel obliged to raise an issue that is usually raised at least once per assembly, which is, has anyone looked into the airships? You know, slow moving, but able to take large amounts of cargo blimps, essentially. Is that something that is on the radar once again, or have we buried this idea once and for all?”

The Minister said she’s waiting for the federal government to develop regulations for that sector.

She said small-population jurisdictions such as the Northwest Territories simply can’t do the research and development needed for products such as airships or small nuclear reactors, which would be able to help wean communities off diesel power generation.

“My understanding is that Transport Canada doesn’t have it as a fully regulated form of transportation yet, so I think it’s still at its perhaps not dissimilar to the discussion around the small modular reactors. I would really love it if Canada federal government could say, ‘Hey, here’s this great thing we might pilot who would like to do it for us?’

“I know mines have asked, right? They’ve asked, ‘Are you folks looking at this?’ I think they’re wanting to look at this, but it’s you know, my sense is that it’s technology that’s on the edge, but not one that’s not fully regulated yet we are a small jurisdiction.”

Tracy St Denis, assistant deputy minister of Infrastructure and Minister Caroline Wawzonek share a laugh over airship humour near the end of a committee hearing on low-water levels. (Image courtesy of Assembly livestream.)

Proponents argue modern airships are safe, reliable, quiet, power-efficient, and cost-effective.

They can disrupt the air transport and river cargo industries, with designs like the LMH-3, developed under Lockheed Martin; capable of hauling up to 500 tons at a much lower cost than fixed-wing counterparts.

Hybrid airships can lift and transport weight — even up to 500 tons — at a much more efficient rate than airplanes and helicopters.

The United States Navy disbanded its airship corps after the Second World War, but airships could be ready for a comeback as opportunities are emerging for lighter-than-air platforms in the commercial and military sectors.

In her paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, United States Navy Lieut. Commander Cam Kovarek explains the versatility of modern dirigibles.

“The airships of today are more versatile than their historical and sometimes infamous counterparts: they can be piloted by a crew, operate unmanned by remote direction, or be left tethered and unattended. Airships are capable of vertical take-off and can land on nearly any surface, including ice, snow, and water. They could also have other uses, such as surveillance for northern security and sovereignty.”

Due to historically low water levels on the Mackenzie River, all of the GNWT’s Marine Transportation Services barges to Norman Wells and Tulita were cancelled for the 2024 sailing season.

The Mackenzie River near Fort Providence is not navigable and includes obstacles such as large boulders and gravel bars at key manoeuvring areas.

The committee briefing was to examine the existing low-water levels and potential impact in the time to come.

One issue is that we are in the middle of a changeover from El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, which could be completed this summer. La Niña features cooler temperatures overall and more precipitation for the North.

The committee heard the ideal conditions to combat this year’s drought would be a very wet fall, followed by a thick snowpack to prevent the groundwater from evaporating in the spring.

Click on image to be taken to report.

About the Author

James O'Connor
James O’Connor joined CKLB 101.9 FM at the start of 2024, after working as a journalist, photo editor and managing editor at newspapers in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. James also has experience in politics, arts, service clubs and the NWT’s non-profit sector. At this point in his lengthy career, James is thrilled to be working at such a unique media outlet and always welcomes notes from listeners at: