Canada, with its vast distances and unforgiving weather conditions, never seems more remote than in its vast north. 70 percent of the country's landmass can't be reached via major roads or rail lines.
The result is a longstanding logistical headache for residents and those trying to bring goods into the region. But now there is a push for an unlikely, and nearly forgotten, way of moving cargo around Canada's remote frontier.
Airships — the dirigibles often referred to as Zeppelins, from the German aircraft that had their heyday in the 1930s — are seeing renewed interest from a number of companies around the world, according to a University of Manitoba supply chain management professor.
Barry Prentice has submitted a report to Transport Canada, the country's transport ministry, urging the government to get behind the old technology as a way to alleviate northern Canada's infrastructure problems. That means ironing out what he sees as regulatory impediments, and even investing tax dollars into building docks for airships in the north.
"Sparse traffic density, few back-haul opportunities, seasonal shutdowns, and unreliable transportation services lead to expensive logistics," writes Prentice, describing the challenges of transportation in the north.
As a result, he writes, "the price of virtually everything is two and a half to three times more expensive than in southern Canada."
'We could've built airships any time in the last 60 years. The problem was that there was never a good market.'
Dale Uskoski, whose company Arctic Expediting ships everything from items ordered online by individuals to food for grocery stores in the Arctic, says there's a small window of time when the ice opens up, from the end of June until the end of September, when ships run on a regular schedule.
"That's when you get everything up there," he says. "Otherwise, you have to fly stuff — the most cost-effective way is to ship it."
"In the winter, there's some overland hauling that happens from Churchill, Manitoba or in-between the communities in Nunavut, but everything gets flown or they wait until next summer," Uskoski said.
An emerging generation of cargo airships, a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to airplanes, would fill this void, argues Prentice, calling their potential impact on northern communities "revolutionary."
Airships, which can land even in trying weather conditions, wouldn't require much in the way of infrastructure investment—hybrid airships can even land on water—and would burn far less fuel than traditional aircrafts, he said. According to Lockheed Martin, for example, their Hybrid Airship burns one tenth the fuel of a helicopter per ton.
High food prices in the north, while they've made national headlines on several occasions in recent years, are an everyday reality for those who live there.
According to a food price survey by the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics from 2014, for example, the average price of a 1-kilogram chicken is $16, while a 2.5-kilogram bag of flour costs $13, as opposed to country-wide averages of $7.77 and $4.86 respectively.
"People up in the Arctic have to find the money to buy a whole year's worth of dry goods, and pay through the nose to get fresh food because it's all flown up there," says Uskoski.
The stark reality spawned a humorous, if also dark, infomercial about the sky-high cost of goods in Nunavut, one of Canada's territories.
According to new research at York University, despite climate change, sea ice in the Northwest Passage is still too thick for it to be a regular commercial Arctic shipping route — it'll be decades before it's safe enough for it to be one.
"This is the first-ever such survey in the Northwest Passage, and we were surprised to find this much thick ice in the region in late winter, despite the fact that there is more and more open water in recent years during late summer," said lead researcher professor Christian Haas in a news release. "This points to the importance of ice transport from the high Arctic and melt processes during the spring season, which critically depend on weather conditions and how they affect the melting of thick ice."
The horrific 1937 accident involving the German airship LZ129 Hindenburg, which caught fire, crashed, and killed 36 of the passengers on board while landing in the US after an Atlantic crossing, marked the end of the airship era. The drying up of investment in airships also coincided with the takeoff of airplane technology during World War II.
"We could've built airships any time in the last 60 years," Prentice said in an interview. "The problem was that there was never a good market. Oil was cheap, people wanted to go fast, the focus was on passengers, and places were happy to build airports and runways." (Commercial jet airplanes are typically six times faster than airships, and transport hundreds of people as opposed to a few dozen.)
"Now, we're looking at moving cargo, and not people, into remote communities," he says, adding that the technology would serve a niche that didn't exist before, but has emerged as climate change results in the melting of ice roads.
In June 2014, Canada's then transport minister Lisa Raitt launched a review of the Canada Transportation Act, which called for input from all interested parties. The last thorough statutory review of the act was done in 2001.
Prentice has submitted a proposal to the review in hopes that an expression of support from the government will promote what he calls "business confidence." He also argued the government needs to clarify the rules around the licensing of airship pilots, noting that it is "out of step" with the US, the EU and Australia, and should consider building docking stations on the public dime.
"I've never seen a politician step to the mike and say 'I like airships, we should have an airship program in Canada.' As long as politicians are too timid to embrace the idea, the business community looks and wonders if they'll change regulations when they need them changed," he says. "Will they support this industry or will they block it? Business hates uncertainty."
In a statement last week, Transport Canada acknowledged that several companies around the world have shown interest in developing large airships for cargo, especially in remote areas and that the government is "monitoring the evolution of the industry."
Teams in six different countries are in the process of designing and testing airships. Earlier this year, Aeros Corp. successfully tested the prototype of its Aeroscraft, while Lockheed Martin's Hybrid Airships are already available for order, with the first deliveries expected in 2018.
"More airship designs exist on the drawing boards and await only sufficient investment to explore their ideas," writes Prentice in his report. "The race is on to establish the dominant design for a transport airship."
"Only a few airships are at the stage of physical construction — most concept designs are at the stage where a prototype could be flown within two years, while the engineered designs could be flown in one year if finance were available."
At the moment, he said, they are designed to carry 10 to 20 tons of material, but they are likely to get bigger — if the demand exists — because it's more economical for larger aircraft to fly further.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk