“At the top of the world there’s an outpost like no other …and a job only a few would dare. The mission: to haul critical supplies across 350 miles of frozen lakes to Canada’s remote billion-dollar diamond mines.” – Introduction to the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers
When college junior John Chartier saw a flyer touting “Travel to the Arctic,” it wasn’t so much the destination that intrigued him as the journey. The flyer was for a class taught at Babson College through the Economics and Math/Science departments. What John found compelling was the small print–there was no preconceived plan, beyond a few pre-arranged speakers. Students were to design the course as it went along.
“The first day, Dr. Goldstein gave us an introduction to his project and basically said, ‘What do you guys think?’ From there we created a syllabus,” reports Chartier.
Senior Nicole Dagesse saw the same flyer, but the destination was exactly what drew her in. Nicole wanted to study abroad and the Arctic was a fascinating prospect, far more remote than the usual European opportunities offered.
Research for Undergrads
Babson Finance Professor Michael Goldstein created Arctic Economics to compliment his new (and first) NSF-funded project which examines the effects of seasonality and changing climate on the arctic economy. As a social scientist, he’s happy that NSF is interested in how seasonal change affects culture and people, and wanted to expose undergraduates to the research process.
“The reason I wanted to teach this course is to give students the opportunity to do and see hands-on basic research from the beginning. The real point is that research is messy. Initially, in a new area, you don’t really know what you’re doing. Your approach changes as you learn. You often don’t really know what you’re getting into and we’re at the beginning of this project so it’s a good time to expose them to these processes. They became part of the research team,” Goldstein explains.
The project is the brain child of veteran arctic scientists Drs. Matthew Sturm, Thomas Douglas (both of CRREL) and consultant Dr. Henry Huntington. The group wanted to merge climate and snow studies with a human element. They wanted to understand how climate affected people’s daily lives. The first challenge was finding an economist to join the collaboration. They didn’t have to look far. Huntington went to elementary school with Goldstein and they’ve been friends since. Being colleagues is a natural extension of their relationship.
About 45 undergraduate students applied for the course, which included funding from the NSF for the trip to Yellowknife, Canada. After a highly selective application and interview process, six undergraduate students, five from Babson in Wellesley, MA, a private business college, and one from neighboring Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA, were chosen and signed on. With the exception of one student from Maine, none had previously been much north of Massachusetts. The focus of this year’s course was transportation – more specifically, looking at the relationships between Canada’s ice roads, climate, the diamond industry, and Native cultures.
Prior to visiting Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territory, students profiled diamond companies and aboriginal development companies to understand the jobs and revenue they bring to the region. Guest lecturers from Babson faculty and Alaska-based project PIs provided background information on the geology of diamond mining, meteorology, snow science, northern cultures, global climate, and modeling methods for predicting the timing of ice roads opening and closing.
Ice Road Econ
The group began their Spring Break field trip with an open, but directed itinerary. From their base of operations in an overheated Yellowknife hotel conference room students finalized plans to compare the local economic impact of two ice roads. The first, called the Joint Venture (or JV) road, is built and maintained by the mining companies (also featured in Season 1 of Ice Road Truckers) whereas the public road is built and maintained by the Department of Transportation of the Government of the Northwest Territories.
The two roads have the same objective: provide access in and out of remote areas for two months out of the year, but the reasons, and hence road costs, differ greatly. Consequently, the fate of the roads and the communities they link are likely to be impacted differently in a warming climate. While businesses may eventually abandon their mines, the government will still need to supply the native communities with heating oil to make it through the winter.
“We had to think about the intangible psychological value of the public road and of people being able to leave by car for two months out of the year,” explains Goldstein. “What are alternatives to the ice road that would allow for success but save money? For example, for the cost of the road, the government could give every family multiple plane tickets that they could use year-round, and not just for two months of the year. But is that enough–is the intrinsic value simply people being able to get out when they want to by car for those two months?”
To answer this question, students performed a local marketing survey. Working with the Department of Transportation and law enforcement officials, students polled drivers on a third ice road, an 8km stretch of ice road between Yellowknife and the nearby Native community of Detta, where, unlike the other two ice roads north (the government road to Wha Ti and the JV road to the mines), drivers had a choice of an ice road or a permanent, year-round overland road. They wanted to know why people chose the shorter ice road over taking the 21-km overland road, and whether the existence of the ice road increased trips to town.
One hundred eighty respondents gave a wide range of answers. One thing remained clear: The weather and existence of the ice road affects the flow of money and goods, and even CO2 emissions. Copies of the students’ reports can be found at www.arcticecon.com.
The group also travelled up the government road and stayed overnight in Wha Ti, a Native community of about 300 people, to experience life in a community that only has a road two months of the year. The group took ice and snow measurements along the way and observed a community–and its frozen lifeline, the ice road–firsthand.
Back in Yellowknife, students split into groups of two and walked Yellowknife building to building, talking with local business owners about seasonal foot-traffic patterns. They spoke with the local air-charter companies and went looking for government officials and diamond company representatives to try and get a fix on how weather impacts the local economy. Olin student Philip Chung worked closely with Sturm and Thomas collecting snow and ice data. They compiled their data into a report while still in Yellowknife. In addition, all of the students learned from Sturm and Thomas how to measure snow and ice thickness data and helped collect data that will be used in modeling the ice road system.
The highlight of the trip for Dagesse was visiting the JV road with an employee from the mining company, Rio Tinto. She says, “Gigantic trucks with full loads made the ice, which was over four feet thick, shake and shift. I talked to the dispatchers and there were lots of trucks waiting to get on the road.”
Chartier had a more philosophical view of the student experience, “For us this trip had such a huge impact. We had an incredible perspective from which to consider economic problems. Hearing the stories behind everyone had the hugest impact on the study. We can’t always use the information to quantify all of the economic issues, but we can use it to amend our approach to the problem.”
Goldstein, who hopes to continue the study in northern Alaska next year, adds, “These ice roads and the changing length of seasons pose many interesting climate-related economic questions: How does the lack of accuracy in long-range arctic weather forecasting models cost mining companies? How can they plan differently? Should they abandon the ice roads all together? Build them every other year? Bring in supplies via the melting Northern Passage during the summer to the northern coast of North America and build an ice road from the north south to the mines, instead of from the south up north to the mines as they do now?
“There are many choices. Businesses adapt more readily than government because the cost-benefit tradeoff is more clear and they can find the money if it is in their economic interest to do so. For the government, adaptation is less clear and easy, but it can learn from what businesses learn and do and adopt those practices, as we have already seen on these two ice roads. The fascinating thing is that, regardless of climate, humans will adapt, businesses will adapt.”—Marcy Davis