June 21, 2008

Arctic Community Officials: Flood Waters Are No Longer Eroding Land Under Town


PANGNIRTUNG, Nunavut - Officials in a remote Baffin Island community said Saturday conditions appear to have stabilized after a flash flood looked as though it might wash the community away from underneath.

Ron Mongeau, administrator for the town of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, said core sampling done Friday showed water from the swollen Duvall River is no longer eroding away at the ground under homes near the town's edge.

"We went down about 55 feet and we saw what we thought we'd see," Mongeau said.

"There was no moving water. It appears right now that the line of subduction of the river valley hasn't extended to houses."

Heavy rain and unusually warm 13-degree temperatures produced rapid snow melt in the surrounding mountains and hills and led to a flood last weekend.

So much water blasted down the Duvall that it carved a 10-metre channel through the permafrost, right down to bedrock. It damaged both of the town's bridges sufficiently that a majority of the community's 1,600 residents were cut off from the water reservoir, sewage lagoon and garbage dump.

Fears of subterranean erosion were then raised as large cracks and sinkholes began to appear between the town and the river.

"More large cracks (were) appearing, more sinkholes," said Mongeau. "We had a telephone pole that literally, before our eyes, dropped 15 feet into the ground."

With more rain and warm temperatures forecast, Mongeau is unsure whether the current stability will last.

"At this point they're stable; tomorrow, who knows," he said.

The critical goal at the time is to establish a road crossing, something Mongeau hopes to have accomplished within the next two weeks, with a permanent solution in place potentially by mid-fall.

In the mean time, crews are working to establish ways to deal with sewage and garbage - both services halted with no river crossing.

Workers are also using the stability of the situation to establish a more efficient water supply chain across the river.

With all of these critical tasks yet to be accomplished, two weeks of adrenaline fuelled emergency exertion is starting to show.

"One of the issues we're facing is employee burnout," Mongeau said, adding that many employees have been working 14-hour days. "We're at the point now where we've got to start looking inward at our staff and make sure they're getting the kind of rest they need."

Private geo-tech companies should be on site shortly to use ground-penetrating radar to find out exactly what's stirring beneath their feet. Science professionals already studying the situation are dumbstruck by what's happening.

Although Mongeau stresses his opinion is not scientific, he believes the root cause of this occurrence, and many other in the eastern Arctic, is global warming. He said ice patterns have been shifting and locals are noticing the arrival of new species to the area, like capeline - a small fish used to catch cod.

"Fishermen have been fishing these waters for 40 years and they've never seen one," he said. "We're pulling them out in large numbers right now."

-By Jordan Jackle in Edmonton