EACH year around this time Craig and Cathy Welsh list all the food, drink, clothing and furniture they need for the next year. They then fly 2,000 km (1,250 miles) south to Ottawa from their home in Iqaluit, buy the non-perishables and put them on a ship that will call once the sea ice melts around July. Estimating quantities can be tricky: one bulk toothpaste purchase lasted more than eight years. Yet local prices are so high that they still save money.
Canada’s transport network, like its people, is squeezed along its southern border. The Arctic depends on air freight, seasonal sea shipments and ice roads. Living costs are exorbitant, but building new infrastructure is even more so: the latest proposal, for a 7,000-km corridor of roads, pipelines and railways has a non-starter price tag of C$100 billion ($80 billion). Now, soaring above such unrealistic options, an old technology is being touted as a new solution: airships.
Also known as dirigibles or (without a rigid structure) blimps, their basic design hasn’t changed in 150 years: a bag of lighter-than-air gas, plus a propulsion system. Airships fell out of fashion after the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, which killed 36 people, and all but vanished in the jet age. Now they are getting a long-overdue makeover. Dirigibles are far slower than planes: they max out at just 110kph (70mph). But they consume much less fuel and cost about half as much to make. They are also easier to fly in dense, cold air than in hotter, more turbulent southern climes, says Grant Cool, who markets them for Lockheed Martin.
Moreover, dirigibles do not need an airport to unload. One lighter-than-air model in development by LTA Aérostructures of Montreal would lower up to 70 tonnes of cargo to the ground, requiring only a mooring mast. A heavier-than-air hybrid from Lockheed Martin can land on any flat land or ice. John Laitin of Sabina Gold and Silver, a mining firm, says he paid C$1.90 per tonne per km for Arctic air freight in 2013. Airship makers say they could run that route for C$1.07.
So why aren’t airships already a fixture in the Arctic sky? Until recently, there was little need: remote towns and camps could safely rely on winter ice roads. But climate change now means these melt unpredictably. Another reason was high oil prices. Although expensive fuel increased airships’ cost advantage over planes, the commodities boom boosted resource firms in the north. When it burst, these companies rushed to cut costs. A final factor is politics. The previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, was a fossil-fuel fan. His successor, Justin Trudeau, vows to tax carbon.
Nonetheless, it will take time for cargo airships to get off the ground. The 40 or so in the world today are all used for observation, tourism or advertising. The first mover is Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicles, which hopes to fly its Airlander at the Farnborough Air Show in July. Lockheed has built a scaled prototype, and signed a letter of intent with Straightline Aviation of Britain to supply 12 airships for $480m. But Mr Welsh has learned to be patient. “I am looking out the window,” he says, “and I still do not see any Zeppelins.”